Passionate Rain Forest Dreams in Brazil

February 4th, 2017

BrazilTravel Writing Award

A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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

When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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

Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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

Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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

New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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

No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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

The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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

Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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

A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upon arrival, a wordless immigration officer passed over my landing slip, I stepped onto an MTR train bound for Kowloon, swiped my Octopus card, climbed into a taxi, and somehow managed to find the right hotel. Hours later, I was headed to Kowloon Walled City Park, where the infamous enclave has since been replaced with gardens and waterfalls. However, the site retains its remarkable history and offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle against the backdrop of impressive architecture. The rest of the day was spent meandering along Nathan Road and beside flamingos at Kowloon Park, among other diversions.

Every night at 8 P.M. (well, almost), a laser show lights up Victoria Harbour. Comically, my first attempt to observe the display was thwarted by Earth Hour, an eco-conscious campaign which takes place once a year and shuts the lights off to raise energy conservation awareness. I couldn’t help but laugh at how I keep finding myself in these situations and return for a more successful try 24 hours later to watch the junk boats drift in a sea of colors.

After crossing Victoria Harbour through an underwater tunnel the next morning, I found myself surrounded by towering buildings at Happy Valley Racecourse. Although no horse racing would take place on this day, various sports were underway in the infield. However, it was time to continue on, and at this point, searching for taxis had become a sort of pastime. Fortunately, all the drivers I came across were approachable, spoke English, and charged far less than what I was used to stateside.

While planning the journey, I’d been obsessively eyeing wave forecasts and trying to decide whether or not to include surfing in the plans. As someone who regularly surfs Lake Michigan, I’m used to catching waves in unexpected places and Hong Kong would be no exception. From what I gathered, March could be a bit hit-or-miss, but everything came together the day before I left. Located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, Big Wave Bay offered rideable surf and hours of fun. Plus, the lineup was filled with friendly locals and there were a handful of shops to rent boards from (with very reasonable rates as well).

When it comes to the outdoors, Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. With an abundance of hiking trails, islands, and protected areas in the region, travelers will have no problem leaving the busy streets behind, thanks in part to extremely convenient public transportation. During my short stay, I hardly scratched the surface.

The trip was perfect, at least in my book, since the minor flaws only gave it character. You know, the complimentary cockroach trying to hide when you enter your cheap room for the first time at one-something a.m., the building’s alarm waking you up the following night after you finally start to get some real sleep. I’ll never forget the smell of incense burning in alleyways, the trees with massive root systems, or the lofty skyscrapers, but above all—the welcoming and helpful people.

Flying out, I noticed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge under construction, a reminder of constant change. I was already missing the city and wondering when I’d make it back.

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The Courage to Explore in Unfamiliar Italy

One day we found the courage to travel along the hills of the Oltrepò after we had first reassured ourselves that ‘our’ house was still standing and wasn’t washed away by the abundant rainfall of the last couple of days. Luckily, the house was still standing firm in its place among the knee-high vegetation: an unsightly grey cube that still did not seem a very attractive place to go and live.
We decided to take a little look around our prospective neighbourhood and we drove to the south, into higher terrain. The roads became twistier and narrower and we were climbing gradually higher and higher with each bend in the road. My insides started to protest. Had I eaten something bad this morning? The gingerbread cake we brought with us from the Netherlands? Of course, it must have been past its sell by date! I thought gingerbread cake couldn’t go off? How could this happen to me? I am always so careful to check everything that passes my lips for signs of mould or wriggling life forms. Or was it the strong espresso from the moca, our little Italian percolator? It produces powerful coffee that requires a hardy stomach. I started to feel sick. This was followed by a vision.
I was standing on the steps of the diving platform in the swimming pool. I was trying desperately to cling on to the smooth, cold metal rails. I was scared that my feet would slip off the slippery steps, which would first break my leg and would then send me falling backwards head over heels smashing my head on the tiles. I couldn’t get a proper grip on the handrail, the steps were a lot steeper than I had expected, and I started to shake. But there was no way back, I had to find the courage to continue. Once at the top, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was standing safely on a wide flat diving board fenced off by metal mesh on both sides. I decided never to do this again. But now I would need to move forward, beyond the fencing, all the way to the end of the wobbly edge, and jump into the depths. I looked down and realised that from the top it was a lot higher than it seemed from the bottom. It made me feel light-headed. How did I get myself into this mess? Behind me, a small group of macho boys were forming, staring at me impatiently. I had to jump, so I closed my eyes, held my breath and… took the plunge.
We had to stop at the side of the road for a break, so I could get some fresh air and let my stomach settle down. What exactly had we got ourselves into? Moving to an entirely different environment, with foreign people, foreign customs and a foreign language, which we hardly spoke or understood. Removed from our social network in the Netherlands, removed from our snug nest where we had lived for the best part of 20 years and where we felt at home and protected. Away from our friends and family, who could support us through difficult times and who could share the joys of the good times. Were we really leaving this all behind? And for what? Panic seized my body. Imagined all the things that could go wrong. Was there still a way back?
After the first wave of panic had died down and I found my courage, I returned to my senses. No, making a U-turn now was not an option. We had already taken the first steps and there was only one way forward: to proceed without wavering. But did we really dare to? Once back in our flat, my stomach and my mind regained their composure. We were going to create an amazing holiday destination, I realised, in beautiful countryside, in fantastic climate. We would have lots of interesting guests and we would make sure they would feel just as at home as we do. Stop hesitating, close your eyes and jump!

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A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran

I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.

Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.

I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!

Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.

Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.

I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.

The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.

Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.

I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.

On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.

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Intense Marine Weapons Training in Hawaii

I exhale as hard as I can, knowing it could mean serious injury or worse. My head is down but I have my arms up and my IPhone ready on a friend’s shoulder taking pictures and recording. Just another day in the Marines. Another day I’m asked to do record and document for friends who want photos for their families and loved ones to know they’re safe and doing well. The expedient shape charge explodes, the air leaves your body and lungs but if you exhale it won’t damage your lungs or body from the blast pressure. The door goes flying inwards, a line of guys going through the door including me with my weapon of choice, an IPhone 4. The room is all clear, everyone is safe and the exercise is completed. Time to wrap up this journey and head home to our island of Oahu, Hawaii.

After training on the big island of Hawaii we begin our cleaning of weapons and gear for the ride home on an HSV(High Speed Vessel). All 22 of us are talking about good times we had as I look through my pictures of the few months we were out there training. Friends all expect me to send them the couple hundred photos and videos I snapped of them during training, which I obliged due to the fact I loved my hobby of photography no matter what lens it was through. As I looked through I chose the ones I thought were the most distinct that they could take home to their families and friends to share with. That night we geared up and put everything we had in the HSV and shipped off back home.

The sea was choppy and I couldn’t sleep so I went to the outside deck of the ship to grab some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Corporal Mullens, a husky Marine with a funny personality, joined me a few minutes later possibly for the same reason. Never known for having a serious tone or attitude he seemed collected just as I was. “You know what you did right?” Mullens said as he looked at me, I looked at him in surprise thinking I did something wrong so I simply said “What did I do?”. Mullens looked out towards the sea and said “These are the best moments of our life. Right now we may not realize it but one day we will and you captured that with your pictures.” I never gave it a thought that he was right, we were so caught up in the moment training all this time we forget how important these moments are. I was told that night that I have a talent for photography but it never occurred to me to be more than anything than a fun hobby. We both stared out to sea that night for a while thinking about everything we had been through the last few years while in the military. The deployments we’ve been on and the countries we’ve seen.

Getting back to the island it was time I started my hobby as an amateur photographer where my love for traveling began, Hawaii. Through this I explored Hawaii using every chance I could taking every photo I thought was unique from my own perspective and becoming better through every shot. Without that conversation with Corporal Mullens and living in Hawaii, I probably never would have kept my hobby and never tried to pursue a degree in photojournalism. Sometimes your hobbies, no matter how small, can turn into something amazing if you explore the possibilities.

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A Different Kind of Food & Wine: The Mangialonga Levanto

Levanto is a gateway to the Cinque Terre, Italy’s famed five towns clinging to the cliffs and coastline in the Liguria Region. It’s the first train stop just north of the Cinque Terre, has a larger town center and feels a little less touristy. Like its Cinque Terre neighbors, it’s both a coastal resort town and great base for hiking. It boasts a large beach you can surf at, is surrounded by 16 medieval villages and plenty of trails for exploring.

I found the Mangialonga Levanto while researching festivals and planning a trip with my friends Ann & Robin. When traveling I like activities that are a bit off the beaten track providing a deeper cultural and local food experience. I suggested we participate in this festival, they agreed it was not to be missed and a great way to cap off our 10 days in Italy. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale and two months later we were in the second group departing Piazza Cavour donning our official blue handkerchiefs while heading for the hills to begin our food & wine odyssey.

The groups were spread 20 minutes apart but by the second and third stops they had blended in a slow-motion trek through the valley above Levanto. The brochure published by Consorzio Occhio Blu listed the official distance of the trek at approximately 15 km. The well-marked path was strung together by a combination of local roads, cobblestone streets and lush wooded paths filled with wildflowers and even wild asparagus. We walked through lemon trees, olive groves and grape vines; past donkeys, gardens and a farmer hard at work. Every turn of the path revealed a different, beautiful vista of the sea, charming villages, and verdant hillsides.

Each May this festival alternates between 2 paths connecting different combinations of 16 medieval village communities. The menu is published several weeks ahead of time, each village offering one part of the 9-courses served by locals. The anchovy soup was the biggest surprise; it was a thick combination of anchovies, tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. As tasty as the soup was, the ravioli with meat sauce and stuffed lettuce leaves tied for my first place vote. We also enjoyed the other offerings of focaccia with sage, bread with minced lard, chickpea fritters (all agreed the best we had during our stay on the Ligurian coast), fava beans with salame and castagnaccio (a very dense and not particularly sweet chestnut desert).

DJ’s and singers accompanied the food at each stop spinning everything from the 70’s hit “Gloria” to current favorites like PitBull and traditional folk tunes. In total, we visited 8 villages working our way back to the Levanto grand finale complete with espresso, cookies, liqueur and a DJ to bring the party full circle into the night. The walk was estimated to take 3.5 hours of actual hiking time; with additional time to eat, drink, enjoy the music and great people watching it took us 5.5 hours start to finish and was well worth the effort.

Sometimes called Mangialunga (Long Eat), sometimes Mangialonga, it’s a bit like “tomayto” or “tomahto”. Both are correct. Levanto isn’t the only town in Italy to host an event like this, or Europe for that matter. Similar Italian events occur in La Morra, Val Graveglia, Recco, Fivizzano, Badia Prataglia and Paspardo each year. Mendrisio, Switzerland hosts both a spring and winter version. Walking wine and food events in the United States include the “Tahoe City Wine Walk” (California), “Food & Wine Walk of Red Bank” (New Jersey) and “Vintage Redlands” (California); each offering a more flat, condensed version.
Though a newcomer to this type of event, it won’t be my last. Food. Wine. Hiking. It’s the Mind Body Spirit ideal of life balance exemplified.

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When a Calm and Gentle Giraffe Attacks!

Kenya can be startling. Gentle grasslands and easy blue skies turn fiery at sunset. Calm, ancient plains can feel downright spooky after dark. Nothing is usual here. It’s a place where dream-like images catch you up short.

My video crew and I have come here at the behest of Kenya Tourism to prove to the world that all is calm and peaceful here, once again. A few months back, during their previous presidential election, some Kenyans turned violent.

Now things have calmed down and we’re here to record scenes of safe, happy tourists.
In truth, that’s what we see. Whatever pockets of violence erupted earlier have settled back into the subconscious of what seems a polite, welcoming society.

Twenty-four hours of travel and layovers have brought us to the capital city of Nairobi, which I immediately love. It’s urban and modern but also distinctly African. You’re never too far away from the animals.

There’s a special sanctuary for baby orphaned elephants. Dozens of these miniature creatures gently crowd you, slurping from their giant baby bottles. It’s a scene of devastating cuteness.

The Giraffes of Giraffe Manor

But we begin our Kenyan journey at another well-known Nairobi institution – Giraffe Manor. It’s a small Tudor style hotel and forest sanctuary, where a herd of Rothschild Giraffe share the grounds with visitors and guests.

It’s also a big tourist spot and that’s why we’re here, to record the up close contact between these huge giraffes and the much smaller tourists. We’ve heard the giraffes will stick their long necks right through the windows of the hotel to join guests at the dinner table. Little children have been known to feed these friendly giants.

As we amble onto the grounds with our gear, I take in the sight of the long-legged beasts. They’re graceful, elegant… even sweet. They reach up into the trees, their long, green tongues snapping up parcels of yummy leaves. Peaceful vegetarians. No, they’re more than vegetarians… they’re Vegans!

I mean, did you ever see a giraffe eat dairy? I don’t think so.

They are quiet. Do they even have voices? When I’ve seen them at the zoo they always seemed so mild mannered, just getting along with everyone. Always on their best behavior. No drama like those monkeys or big cats. Giraffes are sort of the gentle groundskeepers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps the clergy.

We’re real close to one now and our guide is telling us some cool stuff about giraffes: they have an incredibly strong back kick. In fact, he tells us, a giraffe can actually kill a lion!

Whoa. Hold on – this just turns everything upside down in my animal kingdom. A giraffe can take out a lion? No way. Maybe he can out-meditate a lion….

But our guide tells us to be cautious as we circle the creature with our cameras. He’s probably never seen anything quite like us before.

I Don’t Think He Likes Us.

I definitely get that feeling. He moves away, just a bit. He bucks a little. We look at each other. What’s up with him?

And then he charges!

What? Instinctively, we back off… quickly. But we also laugh in disbelief. Except now he’s really moving toward us and a quick glance at the panicked face of our guide, tells me to stop laughing.

The three of us scramble, shout and bump into each other as we race to the safety of a nearby tree. There, we take refuge on the far side of the tree trunk, where the giraffe can’t see us.

We catch our breath and offer expletives. But only for a moment.

Because the big guy suddenly stretches his long neck way around the tree trunk, to look us over. We are eyeball to eyeball with him. Did we really think we could hide behind a tree from a giant giraffe?

Steve is first to speak, “Holy crap!!”. We explode away from our tree refuge, running about in panicked circles to escape, bumping into each other, like The Three Stooges on safari.

In the insanity of the moment, I’m yelling, “Whoop-whoop-whoop!”

JR is going, “Nyaaaaahhhh!”

Steve adds, “Eeeb-eeb-eeb!”

If this was a real Three Stooges episode, there’d be a nearby lake where the three of us would now run at high speed and dive in head first.

This being Giraffe Manor, we instead, scramble away from the now bemused giraffe, to the Manor house and run up the steps, into the foyer.

There, we breathlessly collapse and take stock. We’re OK. We’ve had our first adventure.

We feel like idiots. But are thankful we’re still in one piece.

And ready for the coming thrills of Africa.

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Uncertain Hopelessness into An Unforgettable Trip

As a kid, I loved the beach. My dream one day was to take a trip and move to LA and make it big working in TV. This was quite a dream considering that I lived on the East Coast and none of my family is even remotely involved in this industry. To this day, they still don’t really know what I do or why I even bother to do what I do.

Unfortunately, their fear became my fear and I continued to be trapped where I was. It took a bad break-up and some other bad things to happen, to force my hand and make me to do the thing that scared me the most – leave everything behind and move cross-country without a job.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen NOW. Everything was so bad that making a move couldn’t have made anything worse. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

With the help of my dad, we took a trip and drove my car cross-country for 5 days to LA. What an eye-opening experience – seeing the land change between states and seeing the different ways that people lived.

My dad was probably best travel partner. Unlike the rest of my family, he loved to travel and see the world. He, too, loved the ocean. Part of his family history is that his side of the family is from Taiwan, though originally from southern China near the sea. He grew up swimming and fishing.

Maybe that’s where I unconsciously have this longing to always be near the water. It feels like home to me.

It just took traveling and experiencing new things to get there.

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Hiking up the Amazing southwest coast of Portugal

We set off on a roughly 200km (124 miles) hike up the Portuguese coast early on a spring morning. As we walked out of the farm where we’d been for the past month, I looked back at it with a slight sadness that I was leaving this place that had given me so much peace. Nevertheless, I was reassured by the excitement of the new adventure that lay ahead. He didn’t look back, I don’t think he ever did.

The sky was spotted with clouds, the perfect hiking weather I thought, as the intermittent whitish patches gave us a cool relief from the, already quite hot, sun. The first stretch of our route ascended into the hills that made their way inland; immediately we felt the weight of our backpacks. As we climbed up the dirt path we had the familiar view of the farm, the dunes and the Atlantic behind us; in front of us an unknown winding trail through the hills. We packed light, I left half of my things at the farm, but we still had to carry a reasonable amount of stuff seeing that we were planning to hike and wild camp our way up the Rota Vicentina.

The path was at times sandy and high up in the cliffs over the sea, or through the open landscape of the coastal hills with its patches of Mediterranean pine forests. Along the way we passed small villages and stocked up on food. I can’t really say that there was an average distance we walked per day. We had no time or distance goals, we walked as far as we felt we wanted to. Some days pushing ourselves with the avid determination of discovering our limits, and learning to feel both the pleasure and the pain in our bodies; other days stopping somewhere half way through the day because we found a beautiful place and we wanted to enjoy it for a while longer.

We walked a lot of the time in silence. That was something I learned with him, to just be in the moment with yourself more often. It is also why I think we could hike up the coast together even after knowing each other for a relatively short time; it was a friendship that allowed each other a lot of space, even while having to spend 24/7 together.

Every night we slept with a different scenery in Portugal: under a huge fig tree, on an empty sandy beach or on a cliff overlooking the sea… I have to describe the latter. The rocks dipped into a cosy depression, walled on every side except the one facing the open ocean. There was only one place where our tent could fit among the craggy rocks, which didn’t look too comfortable, but was nonetheless the best we could find as dusk approached.

We pitched our tent and collected wood for a small fire on which we baked sweet potatoes wrapped in tinfoil; seasoned with thyme that grows wild along that coastline. With our warm jackets on, as it gets pretty chilly and windy at dusk, we sat on the rocks listening to the waves beat against the bottom of the cliff while we ate our sweet potatoes with our hands and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I’ve never seen it, but do you know that there is this phenomenon where just as the sun sets completely there is a flash of green light?”, he asked me. I knew nothing of it. We watched the sun’s last rays disappear with the same candid awe that we did everyday; and guess what? There it was, a flash of green light. We most naturally knew that that evening would stay in our memory forever. It was as if the beauty of the landscape, the coincidental event of the green flash, the fire on the rocks, the sweet potatoes seasoned with fresh thyme, were the coordinated instruments of an orchestra playing a beautiful composition by Nature of life on the trail.

I have almost no pictures at all of this trip and maybe I will not remember every single moment of the journey, or the correct order of events. What remains with me is the opening up of my mind and my body to the natural world through the slowness of hiking and sleeping in the wild day after day. I learned to embrace the raw beauty of nature around me and within me; to feel the world to the utmost of my human sensory capacity.

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New Zealand to Norway: The Amazing Postcard Trail

As I looked out to the snow-dripped Norwegian fjords piercing the skyline, I uttered to my grandfather,

“I’m home. Thank you.”

That was odd.

Firstly, it was odd because I’d never met my grandfather.

He died when my father was just a little boy. Heck, I didn’t even know if he would have liked to have been called Grandfather. Maybe Farfar. Or the English version, Grandad. Papa? Gramps?

The second odd thing about that moment was that I actually very far away from home. In fact, I had travelled from the opposite side of the world – New Zealand. This was my first time visiting Norway.

The cold whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks and lips. Yet inside, I felt warm, cosy and…well, home.

My grandfather, Finn, was from Bergen and the surname I have carried all my life belonged to his forefathers. Sivertsen. Son of Sivert. He emigrated to New Zealand in February 1914 as a teenager; perhaps he had been forewarned of some political instability in Europe. But his family history was lost after he passed away when my own father was just a boy.

All the information Dad had about his father’s ancestry was held in a collection of postcards sent between family members, some dating back to 1900. Dad kept them all in a special place in the hopes they would one day provide the key to his lineage. Written in old Norsk and impossibly difficult to get translated in New Zealand, they still carried important details such as names, addresses, dates.

As a child, I would pride myself on my Scandinavian heritage.

“I’m a QUARTER Norwegian!” I would proudly state to anyone enquiring after my distinctly foreign surname.

At age 13, I travelled to Norway with my parents on a family-finding mission.

Day after day in Bergen, we searched through the archives of births, deaths and marriages, trying to put together this family jigsaw puzzle. The name Sivertsen, in New Zealand, was as rare as hens’ teeth. We did not expect it to be hard. But in Norway, we discovered that ‘Sivertsen’ was the equivalent of ‘Smith’.

The day before we were due to depart, we made a breakthrough.

Dad had two second-cousins, living in Bergen.

With his limited Norwegian and their limited English, they formed a conversation along the lines of,
“Hi! We’re your long lost relatives from New Zealand.”
“That’s great, we’ll pick you up at 7pm.”

From that moment, a bond grew between two families from the opposite ends of the earth, but both sharing the same heritage.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to my grandfather, who perhaps guided his son and grandchild to his home.
Grateful for my own father, whose desire to travel over 17,000 kilometres across the world in search of family, never faded.
Grateful for written communications between family members, scattered through time, which were collected, preserved and later joined together like a puzzle.

Most of all, I was grateful for the family in Bergen who welcomed us with open arms.

Since then, three of my siblings have also made the journey to Norway and I later returned in my 20s. The desire to explore more of my grandfather’s homeland has never faded. To explore more of the world and uncover other family secrets we may not yet know about.

Miles away from my physical home, Norway will still always feel like home to me.

One day I will return for longer. One day I will journey from one homeland to another to follow the postcard trail, documenting each step taken by my ancestors from years gone by. One day I will recreate this journey and turn it into a book and as a tribute to all those who search for family in a foreign land.

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No Sleep Until Stunning Hong Kong

Hong Kong. Whether it was the countless peaks, the urban jungle, or something else altogether, the city reminded me of an old friend, a place I’d been many times before.

For too long, I saw intercontinental travel as something that was overly pricey and out of reach. But, with a bit of digital legwork and the cabin fever that accompanied the end of that 2016 winter, I finally left North America.

On my way over to the humid coast of southern China, I was impressed by the never-ending mountains of Alaska and Russia. With a layover at Narita Airport in Japan, I was also able to see Mt. Fuji from the plane, hiding behind a veil of clouds, and the Tokyo skyline in the distance—and then it was off to Asia’s World City.

Upo