Tags Posts tagged with "Africa"

Africa

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The zebra’s skull was picked clean of flesh, its half-buried bones gleaming in the sunlight. White on white, it lays camoflaged on the desert floor. In another place I might have walked past without noticing. But not here in this bleak expanse of land. When all around there is nothing, the zebra becomes impossible to miss.

I’m visiting the salt plains of North-Eastern Botswana. They’re the long dried-up remains of Lake Makgadikgadi; a body of water so vast it once covered an area the size of Switzerland. Now, in the harsh dry season, all that’s left is an otherworldly expanse of salt, stretching on until the horizon. So flat, you can see the curvature of the Earth. Rotating slowly on the spot, my view doesn’t change. We’re the only things out here; me, my group and a long dead Zebra’s skull.

The plan is to sleep out in the open tonight; no tent, just a sleeping bag under the stars. Sitting high on the back of our dusty pick-up truck, we watch our guide start to build a fire using wood he brought along himself. Our backdrop gradually morphs from blue to orange. Then, as the sun takes its final bow, we’re plunged into darkness.

A few moments pass then, one by one, flecks of light are born out of the shadows. Scarcely any at first but, as our eyes adjust, hundreds more appear, replaced by thousands and then… the universe reveals itself to us.

I take my sleeping bag and begin to walk away across the barren lunar landscape. Away from my friends and our guide. Away from all distractions. This is not a time to be shared. This is a time to be alone, just me and my thoughts.

I keep going until the camp fire becomes no more than a candle. Then I lay down in my sleeping bag on the hardened ground, pulling the hood up until just my face is exposed to the cold night air. The only sound is the wind blowing in from the neighbouring Kalahari desert. I gaze up at a sky so clear I can see satellites tracking their way across the heavens. I don’t remember the last time I was ever alone like this, or if I ever have been; a solitary figure under a blanket of stars.

Lost in a mesmerising tranquility, my mind begins to wander. Thoughts creep in; some good, some bad. Some that I’ve kept locked away for a long time. They dart into my mind like the shooting stars above. Questions I’ve been too scared to ask myself keep coming and I have nothing to distract myself from the answers.

I believe you are your own worse critic but, as terrifying as it is, sometimes you have to face yourself. That’s why, under the endless sweep of the Milky Way, I let myself be judged, with only the stars to witness.

Dawn’s light awakens me. A bright orange band is already creeping up the sky as a new day starts. Little black mounds slowly appear out of the darkness around me; my friends in their sleeping bags, embracing their own moment of solitude. I wiggle out of my cocoon, now caked in white. Inside I feel different, happy, content… I gather up my things and walk back to join my group. In a place of nothing, I’m leaving with something.

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

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Sydney wasn’t at the top of my most desired places to go on my trip around the world. Africa was first, since that was the reason why I had planned the trip in the first place, but I definitely thought I would love Thailand more than Sydney.

When I arrived in Sydney, it was freezing cold, and raining – not the typical warm, sunny weather that everyone boasts about. However I wasn’t the least bit concerned about the weather. I was just happy to have made it there on Malaysia Airlines and with absolutely no money at all.

My debit card and credit card had gotten stolen in Thailand, and I had used my last bit of cash for the cab to the airport. Luckily, I had gotten a hold of my mother who was able to wire my money to me when I landed in Sydney. I was grateful to have cash, but it still made me worry, especially since I was traveling completely solo…for the first time.

At first I thought it was going to be a complete bust. I thought I’d end up sitting by myself at a café with nothing to do, and no one to talk to. But boy, was I wrong! I stayed in Bondi Beach, a local area, and immediately fell in love. The shop, café, and restaurant-lined street made me feel like I was meant to be there, and I even texted my mom to tell her I wanted to move.

Since I was solo, I was really able to take in my surroundings, and discover how it feels to live in this other world. I figured out how to budget my money, and although I ate pizza for every meal, I felt so proud and excited to be figuring out how to be completely on my own. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable walking from place to place in Sydney, and taking the City Sightseeing tour bus – which doubled as transportation – to and from my “apartment” in Bondi.

I became so confident with myself that other tourists would stop me to ask if I knew how to get to certain streets! It also made me not only comfortable, but also eager to meet people.

Just by smiling, saying hello, or even taking a photo for someone led to a new friendship, which six months later, still exists. These new friends made me love Sydney and Bondi even more than I already did.

I told my new friends about my volunteer trip in South Africa, my misfortune in Thailand, and how I had be winging it with my limited amount of cash in Sydney, and their responses were the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.

They told me I inspired them. They said they were so inspired that I had made it around the world despite many hurdles, and was still so confident and happy, that it made them want to travel more and help others.

Suddenly, I had found my purpose in traveling. I travel to inspire others.

As luck would have it, my new friends took me in, and took me around Sydney and Bondi as if I had lived there forever. I knew I couldn’t afford to eat at the places they would take me, but when they noticed I was only ordering one house wine and a glass of water, they insisted on treating me so I could really experience local life.

These strangers who I had only just met helped me so much, and it made me realize something. If you’re kind, grateful, genuine, and confident, your energy will be noticed and appreciated by other people. I realized that I really was all of those things, and even more importantly, I was happy.

 

I thought I was so lost when I first got to Sydney, both literally and figuratively. But by the end of my journey…I realized I had found myself.

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

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I came to wander almost every city street in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Africa because the hotel receptionist said to me, “A map? You don’t need a map, getting lost is half the fun.” She was right. And there was no map anyway.

Calling the narrow passages that were also unofficial obstacles courses ‘streets’ might have been an overstatement. Think of walking down the smallest alleyway in your own neighborhood and having to step over randomly discarded toilets, stray cats, sticks, bicycle tires, garbage, potted plants and that accurately describes the streets of Stone Town. Sometimes they were big enough for small cars and sometimes they were not. As long as your day ended without having collided with a bicycle, you’ve had a successful walking day in Stone Town. man on bike and boy

Yet in that jumbled mess lays a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The architecture is stunning and evidence of Stone Town dates back to the 8th century. In the 19th century it was one of the most important trading routes in the Indian Ocean region.

sunset

Many early European explorers also used the island of Zanzibar as an important base. David Livingstone was probably the most famous European explorer to do so. He had many expeditions over his lifetime throughout Africa. He was gone for several years and little was heard of his existence to the outside world. On November 10, 1871 he finally met with journalist Henry Stanley and the famous quote, “Dr Livingstone I presume?” came into existence.

tunnel

Stone Town gets its name from the ornate houses built with stone by Arab traders during the 19th century. The Old Fort is now used as a cultural center with shops, workshops and has daily dance or music performances.

corridor

For a small donation, we took a wander around the old fort.

walking

One of the biggest attractions for visitors is to simply wander the streets. No matter which way you go exploring, it won’t be that long until one ends up along the seafront or Creek Road as a reference point. If you do feel completely lost, locals are friendly and more than willing to point you in the right direction back to your lodging. If all else fails, you can just grab a taxi and tell them the name of your hotel and they will bring you back.

carved door in stone town

Part of the allure of walking around town is finding and viewing some of the 500 brass studded, wooden doors on many of the buildings.

6 degree wine

For food, you can get as local or as fancy as you want. We decided to go out for a nice dinner one night at a restaurant called Six Degrees South. It was big, modern, snazzy, had a roof top bar and the food was excellent. The service was great and they were well set up for big groups or solo travelers.

bed

After you have explored Stone Town, head up the coast. There are plenty of nice places to choose from. We stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. Our room was a short walk from the beach which provided endless strolling. The water was bath temperature and we could have sat in there all day.

white  wall

From a cultural and photographic view point, we found Stone Town to be interesting, worthwhile and a photographic gem. Other travelers we talked to did not enjoy Stone Town because of the pollution, litter, crumbling buildings and disarray. All of those things exist and they were not my favorite part either. It seems Stone Town would only be helping themselves to clean up the city and even just the tiniest bit would make a drastic improvement. I’m sure it’s easier said than done when the community is still facing so many poverty issues. However underneath all the mess is world class architecture and beauty. To me, a visit to  Stone Town allows the visitor to see what they want to see. I went there wanting to see it’s beauty, architecture and cultural differences, and for that reason I was not disappointed.

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If you go:

You have to buy water while on Zanzibar. Make sure you get to a shop and buy bigger gallons of water. Not only will this save you money, but plastic pollution is a major problem and eye sore in Zanzibar, so do what you can to minimize your impact.

We stayed at Safari Lodge. Some rooms were more unique than others, i.e., aesthetically appealing stone archways as you enter the shower, while other rooms were window-less. The lodge was clean, the staff was nice and some of their architecture made it a neat place to stay while in Stone Town.

 Six Degrees South is within easy walking distance of most hotels in Stone Town, was good value for money and we would recommend eating there.

Further up the beach, we stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. We found the rooms to be be very nice, clean and comfortable. The beach is a short walk down a hill and the location is lovely. You can walk almost as long as you want either right or left and the water was so warm! There are plenty of restaurants around the area. Unfortunately, a few of us did get a touch of food poisoning we believe from some crab soup at their restaurant.  Aside from that, our stay was very nice there and we would recommend.

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‘Well, if you feel like you should go volunteer in South Africa, then go.’ I starred at the screen of my iPhone, reading the words from my mother over and over again in disbelief. I had been talking about volunteering in South Africa for months, but for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to spend the only extra money I had on a flight.

All it took was that one push, from the one person who could ever make me feel like I was brave enough to go through with one of my many crazy ideas. ‘Then go’, she said. So I did.

When I arrived in the small, shanty town of Muizenberg, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. A million thoughts ran through my mind like, ‘What if the kids don’t like me?’, ‘What if the other volunteers don’t like me?’, ‘What if I don’t find whatever it is I came here to look for?’

Then I remembered something. I did it. I left my social bubble in L.A., scrounged up as much money as I could, and came to volunteer with kids in an impoverished area in Africa. Involuntarily, a smile made its way across my face as I lay in my bunk bed in the gravely cold volunteer house, waiting to meet the kids at school in the morning.

When we arrived, dark, threatening storm clouds made the already glum schoolyard look even more depressing, but something about the way the darkness contrasted with the building made it seem bright. I felt a pit of nervousness in my stomach as I realized I was about to meet the kids for the first time.

Diiiing! The shrill sound of a bell rang and suddenly, all the doors of the rickety school flew open, and out poured dozens and dozens of tiny uniform-clad children. My heart started racing, wondering how I was supposed to introduce myself to them.

Teacha! Teacha!” Before I had time to think, a swarm of little kids surrounded my waist, grabbing my hands in theirs and latching onto me like I was their mother. They’re holding my hand! I thought, instantly filled with love and gratitude for these tiny people who I had only just met.

“Teacha! What is your name?”

After slowly annunciating my name and asking theirs in return, I spent the rest of recess doing the same for dozens of other kids that would run up and jump on me without thinking twice.

I had never felt such pure, unquestionable, undeniable love before in my entire life. I had also never felt love at first sight, but in that moment, I knew it was real. These kids, who live in tin shacks, who have one outfit to wear and hardly anything to eat, found happiness simply by holding my hand. They loved me without knowing anything about me; they loved me just because I was there. I admired them because they loved in general, and opened their hearts and minds to not just me, but people from all over the world that were there to volunteer as well.

Suddenly, there was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been than on that cold, gloomy, muddy playground.

I had felt love, and for the first time, I wasn’t afraid of not knowing where I was, or what I was doing, I just wanted to be there, with them. I had fallen in love with these kids, and I had fallen in love with South Africa.

I woke up every morning, in the numbingly cold and drizzling weather, excited to see the powerful mountains that prominently stood guard of the seemingly fragile town, and the smiling faces of the happiest kids I had ever met. The days flew by, my heart growing more and more by the minute.

On my last day at the school in Muizenberg, I walked along a row of half-buried tires, holding the hands of a small first-grade girl and boy as they tight-roped along the tires in the uttermost excitement. We didn’t speak other than the occasional, “Good job!” but they insisted on continuing to walk along the tires.

“You know,” the little girl said in a small, sweet voice, “you don’t have to leave, you can stay here with us!” My stomach wrenched and all of the air left my lungs as my heart broke into a million pieces. I glanced down at her tiny face, my blue eyes meeting her pleading, honey-brown eyes.

“I wish I could,” I choked, realizing that I really meant it, “I’ll come back one day.” I whispered, hating thinking that it might be a lie. But knowing it was enough to encourage me to try.

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

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Return to the Kasbah

My sojourn in a land of veils, desert nights, and hypnotic drumming rhythms ended when the US Sixth Fleet was ordered to steam toward Moroccan shores to evacuate military personnel and sensitive equipment from its naval communications station. Only two years earlier I had been whisked to that secret military base on the north tip of Africa. Our stay in that land scented with cumin and eucalyptus involved us in cold war cat and mouse games with Russia, miracle pregnancies, a cholera epidemic, and finally the military coup that hurried our return to the states.

Morocco was a land I entered cautiously from my first glimpse of its jade river snaking inward from the coast. If I experienced a slight shiver each time I looked down the road that disappeared into dense vegetation directly across from the entry to our base—the road that led to the reputed Soviet base—I had no real worries.  My red passport was my entry to everywhere I chose to go and my protection.

I quickly acclimated to the temperature fluctuations: from mornings requiring sweaters against the desert cold until a sizzling sun brought dizzying heat that felt poured out of an oven. Around four, the temperatures evaporated, heat disappearing as quickly as it arrived.

On Tuesday mornings at Sidi Yahia’s souk, I squatted beside dusty blankets piled with dates, kumquats, or cactus pears to bargain for my week’s produce. I learned the practicalities of the metric system—that a family of three doesn’t eat a kilo of radishes in seven days. It took hours to sanitize fruits and vegetables and sift the weevils out of all the flour and pasta products we wanted to eat. I juggled French and Arabic and learned the language of the belly dance.

Saturdays I wandered the Medina’s maze and negotiated the dirham quota for each embroidered djellaba, string of amber, or gold bracelet that would become my Arabic treasures. I learned the mysteries of knots tied into intricate mosaic carpets and sank my toes deep into their woolen surfaces. The brass and iron sellers jostled for my attention.

 “Madame, for you a good price, very good price.”

“Madame, Monsieur, entrer; je prépare du thé.”

I juggled the scalding glass and sipped their sweet mint tea. With the third refill they recognized me as more than a short-term tourist. For me, a semi-permanent resident, they made special bargains.  Still negotiating for babouches and caftans—future Christmas gifts—and rugs, took most of an afternoon as Khalid inched the price down only a few dirhams at a time each time I shrugged, “Bissef, it is too expensive.”

Fortunately for me, the village pasha chose another American wife to honor —not me—at his banquet by offering her the sheep eyeball. Knowing that refusing would have been a rude breech of etiquette she hesitated, then tossed the morsel into her mouth.

In spite of the tight security of our location, the months passed quietly. A cholera outbreak stopped thirty miles away.  When disgruntled militia attempted a coup against the King and my husband and I found ourselves facing rifles with fixed bayonets, I had already delivered my baby—uneventfully, without the special obstetrician I would have enjoyed Stateside. I left the country by plane, the Sixth Fleet not being necessary after the coup was stopped. An armed escort drove me and the baby to the airport. As our route took us through Rabat and past the palace, my driver engaged me in conversation. I missed the captured rebels lined against the palace wall, facing a firing squad.

Today that baby is a young woman who is insisting that I accompany her on a trip this fall to her birthplace. That trip will take courage. I will return to Morocco, to show my daughter the exotic land that she has known only through photographs and stories, the land she assumes I remember as clearly as a roadmap. We will travel from the white walls of Casablanca north to Rabat–perhaps past the same wall of the King’s palace where the captured rebels’ lives ended. I hope I can find my way through passages to an inner court where Moorish lanterns cast arabesque patterns across silk cushions, inviting us to a feast of tagine, chickens roasted with olives and lemon and peppery herbs. I want my daughter to watch dancers who might recall to her memories of her early steps that became belly dancing like her mother could never master. I’ll take her to Sidi Yahia’s Tuesday souk and hope my rusty Arabic is sufficient for buying figs or dates. No diplomat’s protection this trip; I’ll be on my own, a ten-day tourist.

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

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Unknown Girl in an Unknown Place somewhere in Morocco

My travels have taken me far and wide.  I’ve been all over the world, from well-known and highly respectable places such as Rome, Italy to the not so clean and downright unsettling such as the grimy flavelas of Brazil.  I have learned much about others and myself in my experiences and I use my new found knowledge everyday to better my understandings of those around me.

            One of my favorite lessons was one I learned while visiting Marrakech, Morocco.  There I was standing in the middle of one of the worlds largest and most bustling markets all alone, looking like a stranger and feeling out of place.  I had originally planned to make a few purchases from the local people since I had heard that the products were each original and one of a kind.  What I had not expected was the local storeowners to take advantage of my innocence in knowledge of the area by forcing me to pay prices that were unquestionably too high.

In Marrakech when you wish to buy a product you have to “barter” for it.  This basically just means you have to settle on a price with the shop owner and then pay the discussed price upfront.

            Poor little me, in my inexperience with bargaining with strangers that were more than twice my age and very intimidating knew nothing of what these certain products should cost.  I basically agreed to any price without question.  I soon found out I was paying way too much as my wallet was feeling much lighter than I had originally intended.  I quickly made an internal pact with myself to not be such a pushover when buying my next item as my eye caught a beautiful handmade leather purse in the corner of the approaching shop.

            I could feel the anxiety in my chest as I took a deep breath and mustered all the courage I could find inside.  I offered what I thought to be a fair price to the grisly man standing in front of the display.  He immediately shot back with a price more than 3 times what I had offered!  All while holding my gaze with deeply piercing eyes.

            My hands were shaking slightly and I knew he could tell that I wasn’t very good at this bartering thing.  I really wanted that purse and I was not about to back down.  The voice in my head was screaming at me to respond before I gave away my fear.  That when the bravery kicked it.  It was if it had been hiding under the surface of my chest just waiting for the right time to show itself.  I took another deep breath and restated my original price with confidence paying no attention to the shaking in my hands as I stared straight back into his suddenly less intimidating eyes.

            This seemed to catch him off guard as he quickly wiped his brow and took a second to think of a proper price to shoot back.  I couldn’t believe that I had been so firm in my response!  That purse would be mine and I had no doubt in my mind that I would be paying the price I wanted this time.

            He looked over me carefully and hurriedly stated a price still much to high.  The courage was overtaking me at this point.  Once again I stated my same price and started to back away as though I was going to find a better shop to spend my money.  That seemed to get him.  He quickly reached in my direction and stopped me from leaving as he hesitantly agreed to the price I had previously decided on.

            I did it! I could believe it!  I was now officially a “barterer.” Little ole’ me, a small girl from a small Texas town was making bargaining decisions with a man who could easily overtake me.  I was so proud of myself and for the rest of the day I refused to back down on my prices and got almost everything else for half the price as my first purchases.

            I proved to myself that I was courageous and could do anything I set my mind to.  I still use this important lesson when dealing with people who are willingly taking advantage of me and remind myself internally “I am strong and I will not let myself be pushed down by people who think they can control my actions.

            Now I have a drawer full of handmade original trinkets from Morocco and my favorite purchase, the purse, is hanging on a hook in my room to remind me of the moment I felt the bravery and courage that was inside of me all along.  I will never forget that feeling for as long as I live.

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

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Mountain gorilla baby eyes

With barely a sound the 160 kilo/ 350 pound gorilla walked right in front of me on the jungle hill side. Mountain gorillas only exist in high terrains of south western Uganda and neighboring Congo and Rwanda. For some, having the opportunity to hike to a family of mountain gorillas is the trip of a life time. I was pinching myself that here I was standing next to more than a dozen gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa.

gorilla head

Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.

baby eating celery

Eight are observed solely by researchers and ten of the groups are the groups visitors are allowed to be guided to. We were assigned to be led by our guide Eugene to the Umubano group which had thirteen members.

baby eyes

Gorillas are considered babies from ages zero to three, juvenile from ages three to six, adult ages six to eight and after age eight females are mature enough to start reproducing. Gestation period is for nine months and female gorillas will usually have about six babies in their lifetime.

silver back

Around age twelve the black back of a male mountain gorilla will turn silver, giving them the revered title as now being a silver back.

hand gripping

For diet, gorillas are vegetarian consuming around 2000 different species of plants. An adult will eat about 30 kilos of vegetation a day and they get all their water needs from the plants they eat. Gorillas make a new nest for themselves to sleep in every day, usually on the ground and will start constructing it around 5 pm or so.

side profile

With their immense strength, visitors are often nervous to be in the jungle with these wild animals. Rest assured, the gorillas usually want nothing to do with you. They are too preoccupied with feeding, socializing and taking care of their babies. You are with guides, guards and trackers the entire time who are familiar with all of the gorillas. As long as you do what you guide tells you to do and do not use flash, (which applies for almost all wildlife photography in Africa) you will have an amazing time.

momma eyes

I couldn’t imagine having gone to Africa without having had the experience observing mountain gorillas. Looking at the faces and reactions of people when they come back from sharing the space with these gentle giants, they are impacted. Viewing wild gorillas changes you. Eugene, our guide thanked us all for coming and  told us how much our park fees are instrumental in helping the gorilla population increase. The park can pay for gorilla doctors and if an animal does get sick, usually the medicine cost a minimum of $1000.

chin up

If you want to help conserve mountain gorillas – go see them for yourself. In Rwanda it appeared that the park fees were being put to good use as poaching was down and gorilla numbers have increased from 500 to 900.

baby going for ride

With these fees the park can continue employing rangers who patrol and monitor for poachers. Among our group, some people had chosen to hire a porter (someone who will carry your bag) for the day. Eugene did not say whom specifically, but some of the porters who were hired used to be poachers in the park. Now instead of killing gorillas, they were earning an income from tourists coming to see the gorillas in a safe environment. Learning that around us were would be poachers that were now accepted and welcomed as porters, really drove home to me how impactful responsible tourism combined with effective leadership and park management can be. Seeing how the park was being run gave me hope that the mountain gorillas may have a chance to keep striving in these jungle hillsides.

mom w baby

The opportunity to view gorillas in their home was a fairytale-like adventure. Hopefully the conservation effort will continue to move forward in such a way that gorillas never become animals the next generation can only read about in a fairy tale book, but hike to for themselves and view these animals striving in their home as the magnificent creatures they are.

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For more information:

 Volcanoes National Park

We stayed at a church mission called Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima. It was very nice, clean and well located.

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I remember the first time I boarded a plane and travelled to a different country. There is nothing quite like the thrill of going to a place you have never been to before. It was in 2009 for a week long school outing to the wonderful Réunion Island. As soon as we arrived I could feel the island humidity engulf and welcome me. It felt strange and I loved the strangeness of it. As Bill Bryson wrote in Neither Here Nor There “I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city”.

And that was when the travel bug bit me. Like many others I immediately made a bucket list of destinations I wish to see. Over the years my knowledge of the world has expanded quite significantly thanks to numerous travel magazines, blogs and websites. This has also led to a proportional increase in the number of items of my bucket list.

My desire to travel has led me to diagnose myself as a sufferer of wanderlust. Wanderlust is often defined as a strong urge or desire to travel. It is difficult to explain that sensation to people that have never experienced it before. John Green captured the essence of wanderlust in his novel Paper Towns with the following:

“I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met”.

How do you cure a case of wanderlust? I am not sure you can. I have come to the conclusion that the best way to ease the ache for travel is to give in to it. Last year I spent most of my savings to go to Europe. It was a 21-day Contiki tour. For three weeks I spent a large amount of time with two friends and a bunch of strangers. This trip enabled me to place ticks next to quite a few of my bucket list items. The Eiffel Tower, Coloseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Berlin Wall and a gondola ride in Venice.

In June and July this year wanderlust tugged at me again and I travelled to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana with a missionary/outreach group. And yes, I did get to place a tick next to Victoria Falls on my bucket list. Just like the Europe trip, the accommodation was simple and a lot of time was spent in transport. But the group was smaller and more time was spent taking in the culture and nature of the surroundings.

When I go through my photos I tend to skip past the ones of me and the bucket list items. I linger at the photos with the people in it. The strangers that became family. In the end it’s the people that make the stories – not the destination. The memory of walking in Rome when a flash of rain made our entire group look like we just came out a shower still puts a smile on my face. It makes the tossing of a coin into the Trevi Fountain seem insignificant.
The next evening a group of us (only girls) were lost at 23h00 and couldn’t find the camp site outside Rome. On the way two young (and attractive) men zoomed past us on a Vespa and shouted something along the lines of “Ciao belle”. This was accompanied by the romantic blow of a kiss. Eventually we found the camp site. We were physically drained and with blisters on our feet, we all fell asleep with a smiles on our faces.

My brother back-packed alone through Vietnam and the first story he related back to me involved him playing a drinking game with about 20 other strangers on a boat. He doesn’t remember their names but he remembers the moment and the joy he shared with them. These experiences add meaning to Rule #32 from the move Zombieland: “Enjoy the little things”.

One of the beauties of travel is to share moments with strangers. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. This affords you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. But you don’t. You are exactly who you are supposed to be in the company of these strangers. This is why travel helps you to discover yourself. Even though you can pretend to be someone else you always end up being your true self. This novelty is independent of destination and available to all that are willing leave behind the comforts and familiarity of home.

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

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Embracing the Madness in Morocco

by Andrea Duty

 

Sometime between being caked with black soap and having my boobs scrubbed with what I can only assume was steel wool, I got the giggles. I should have clued in to the oddities to come within the hammam when I was handed a white paper thong upon entrance, but I didn’t. Now, there I was, sliding around on a hot marble slab while some woman hosed me down and repeatedly ordered me to flip over, as if she were basting a rotisserie chicken. I was eventually – mercifully – swaddled in cocoon of towels, ushered to a pile of floor cushions, and fed an endless supply of warm, mint tea. In the end, I felt much the same way as I did during the rest of my stay in Marrakech, which is to say: confused, mildly abused, yet exhilarated nonetheless.

For the uninitiated such as myself, Marrakech can swallow you whole. If London is an anthill of organized layers and regimented routines, Marrakech is the feeding frenzy atop a pile of picnic leftovers. It’s raw, chaotic, colorful, and, at times, jarring.

But sometimes chaos is what we need, isn’t it? To be tossed into mayhem; thrown back to that place where we see everything anew again, as through a child’s eyes. It’s only when we are placed into the unfamiliar that our senses are sent into overdrive, forcing us to live in the present moment.

And to walk through the streets of Marrakech is to have the present moment unceremoniously shoved in your face. Fumes float from the tanner, a metal worker hammers, neon dye drips from wool strung above. Donkeys drag, motorcycles rev, verbena hangs brittle in the sun. A thick snake sways languid to a tune. Cool orange juice to squelch the heat. Hello/Hola/Bonjour, Madam! Special price just for you! Come inside, just to look! Snails for one durham! Scarfs! Soap! Spices! Three men pull a lamb from a pit, steamed and salted. The street is sweet with cumin. A stop for tea. The call to prayer. Five times a day all is dropped. Five times a day, the movement, the melody, the madness is put on pause. Five times a day, there is space to draw a deep breath and take it all in.

The whirling chaos of the Red City often left me frazzled (and once drove me to tears), but it also gave me the cultural slap in the face I so love to experience and am finding increasingly difficult to find. Most of my travels have been to sanitized, Western countries and it seems I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel so utterly out of place, what it’s like to have expectations shattered in the best way possible.

I thought I was traveling to Morocco for warm weather and a tagine or two, but what I got was a glimpse into another world and a reminder of how grateful I am for destinations that challenge my comfort, my routine and my ideas of what travel is meant to be. Marrakech taught me to embrace discomfort and vulnerability and, yes, even white paper thongs, because it’s in these states that we learn to challenge ourselves and in doing so, broaden our ideas of the world and the lives lived within it.

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Sitting in a small circle around the fire that evening, darkness fell all around us. Beyond the glow of the fire, the endless sand dunes that extended outward in every direction fell asleep in the alluring shadows of the night. Above us, the scintillating stars in the infinite sky twinkled with divine secrets to which we were not privy. Someone pointed out Mars in the starlight, while another, the Milky Way. We see what our eyes allow us to see; in the middle of the Sahara, your imagination takes rein and you find your wildest dreams taking flight.

Four snowy-white cats with features resembling that of leopards encircled us. I wondered if they were residents of the desert or nomads at heart, with an insatiable bout of wanderlust, not unlike myself. In the distance, the camels were sound asleep. I smiled at the thought of my intrepid camel with the jagged half-ear, who had hours before ventured into the heart of the Sahara with me at sunset. There are countless ways in which the losses in our lives manifest themselves.

Yet, there are also joys. For instance, the joy of hearing your sentiments being shared aloud by a Dominican traveler named Miguel, who had, at the sight of the sun setting over the undulating mountains of golden sand, exclaimed profusely in Spanish: “Gracias, muchas gracias, God, for creating this beauty, and for allowing me to be part of this beauty!”

Most of all, it is for me the joy of meeting like-minded wanderers on the road, with whom your paths cross ever so briefly, and yet, have the power to leave an indelible mark in the geography of your heart. In the desert, I met one such inspiring woman who caused me to tear while listening to her story by the fire. Her name was Alejandra Cardenas.

A single, immigrant mother who had painstakingly brought up her daughter to have had her heart broken when her child left home at the age of 20, Alejandra decided that she had to, for the first time, live not for others but for herself. She has had a trying life, but her lifelong dream was to travel the world. To embark on this journey, she sold all her material possessions, abandoned all forms of convention, and kept her zeal and courage shining in the paths she has chosen to walk, touching the lives of those she has met, mine included.

Despite having suffered humiliations, one of which included having to literally stand up by and for herself while ignoring the leering faces of unkind teenagers when she slipped and fell in a youth hostel in Italy, Alejandra remains stoic in the pursuit of her dream. She shared her uplifting stories from the road thus far, and the exotic destinations she planned to go after leaving Morocco: Kenya, Egypt, and subsequently, wherever else her heart led her.

Her face lit not only by the light of the fire, she effused: “Mija, I urge you to go travel. Travel as far and as widely as you can. Do it when you are young. When you reach my age, you’ll realize how the muscles start to ache and the bones, they hurt from walking too much. Travel is the best education anyone could ever have. You learn so much about people, about different cultures, about yourself. This is something no one and no university can ever teach you.” Smiling to herself, she said in a whisper: “And I want to do that now, to travel the world. Just imagine all the stories I can tell my grandchildren one day.”

That night, with neither electricity nor a proper toilet, I lay awake on the sand-crusted floorboard of my tent as the faces of all the individuals I have met in Morocco, who have each moved me so deeply in their own ways, floated in my mind. As the stifling heat gave way to the frigid cold, I drifted off to an intermittent sleep, wondering what new adventures and people awaited me when I awoke.

About the Author: Agnes Chew is a writer, traveler, and musician at heart, with an insatiable curiosity for life. Enamored with the notion of getting lost in places beautiful and hitherto unknown, she has no intention of removing the rose-tinted glasses everyone tells her have been left on for far too long.

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