Monday, January 28, 2013

How to Travel the World

           This is not a comprehensive guide on how to travel the world, I'm not experienced or motivated enough to write that. Plus it wouldn't fit in one blog post. But it is how I've travelled the world. I've been to 5 continents and 22 countries (adding two more in the next couple of months) since leaving home for the first time eight years ago. Here’s how I've done it, and how you can too:

1) Get university credits for travelling

            Are you in university or college? Thinking of going? Depending on your school and program of choice, you may be able to get university credits overseas. At my university they offer programs called Study Tours, which give students the opportunity to travel to such varying places as New York, India, Mexico, Ecuador, and many more. These study tours are available for students studying a range of topics, from geography to biology to art to fashion design. They allow groups of students (anywhere from 10-25 at a time) to travel to other parts of the world and actually see what it is they are studying, with an instructor or two there to explain everything (which is clearly better than reading about it in a textbook).

            In university I majored in Geography and International Issues, with an extended minor in Latin American Studies. This allowed for a lot of studying overseas. The first time I got on a plane I was headed to Spain for a month on one of these study tours. It was that trip that ignited my passion for travel, and for the rest of my university career I took every opportunity I had to get my credits while travelling  I studied volcanoes, geomorphology, religion and city planning across three Hawaiian islands. I learned about glaciation, super volcanoes, forest fires, and the history of national parks in Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I saw firsthand the effect of rising sea levels and wave action all down the Washington coast. I spent a month in Mexico experiencing the vibrant culture, drinking tequila that’s actually good (and learning why), exploring countless Aztec ruins, and discovering religions I didn't even know existed. All in the name of education. I probably got about 30% of my university credits this way. And I learned a million times more than I would have sitting in a classroom.

Yes, this is school

           So don’t think you have to wait until you’re done school to start travelling  Do your research and find out of your school offers similar programs. I promise you won’t regret it.

2) Do an Internship

          Again, something you can do as part of your education. An overseas internship may be offered through your university for credits or you can find your own and just use it to pad your resume and experience. Many internships are either partly or fully funded, it’s just a matter of finding them.
This depends on your area of interest, but if you want to avoid doing an internship in an office building down the street it’s a good idea to look at your country’s international development agency. Canadians can find many international internship opportunities through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), 
while Americans should be able to find them through the US Agency for InternationalDevelopment (USAID). Another good option is AISEC, a global student-run organization that can help you find funded internships in the areas of development, management, education and engineering/technical.

A couple years ago I had the opportunity to do an internship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, organized by my alma mater. I’d already graduated at this time, but it was easier to do an internship through the university and having that support system rather than trying to find my own and going in alone and blind. I spent three months interning at a non-profit organization called Women Fund Tanzania, and learned so much more about the country and its people than I would have just travelling there on my own. I also volunteered at KidzCare Tanzania, a children's home and nursery school which I wouldn't have known about it were not for the connection made by my university. After my internship I spent a month travelling around Kenya and Zambia on my own, something I would have been terrified of doing alone had I not already been living in Africa for the last three months. Scared to travel alone? Do an internship or volunteer in the area first, you’ll soon get over your fear!

With some of the KidzCare boys

PS: Because of the internship I did in Tanzania I am going back to Africa for another internship this year, this time in Kenya. Make those connections and opportunity will abound!

3) Work on a Cruise Ship

In late 2011 I decided I needed a paying job that allowed me to travel, so I applied to work on a cruise ship. I had applied to work at the shore excursions desk on board, thinking that since I've done all these things I would be the perfect person to sell them! Well I didn't get hired to sell shore excursions but I did get hired as a youth counsellor (kind of like a camp counsellor at sea). The only experience I had working with kids was some high school work experience at an elementary school, a little bit of coaching and my time spent volunteering at KidzCare Tanzania, but that was enough. The great thing about being hired as a youth counsellor is that it’s a seasonal position: I’m only needed when kids are on breaks from school, so I don’t need to spend nine months at a time at sea. My first time at sea was one week in the Caribbean for spring break. My second contract was three months cruising between Seattle and Alaska in the summer. And I’ll be returning to the Caribbean for a month this spring. Winter contracts are available too, but I chose to skip out this year and spend Christmas at home.
            Don’t enjoy working with children? There are plenty of other options at sea. Cruise ships need people with retail experience to work in the shops, servers, cooks, and busboys to work in the restaurants, bartenders in the nightclubs and bars, dancers, singers, musicians, and other entertainers in the shows. They need security guards, maintenance workers, lighting and sound technicians, DJs  fitness instructors, hotel employees. Engineers and sailors. You name it; you can do it on a cruise ship (almost).
            Pay varies between cruise lines (some great, some not so great) and also varies depending on the country you reside in based on cost of living, e.g. North Americans are paid more than someone from the Philippines. Flights to and from the port are paid for by the cruise line, as is a hotel room if required before you board the ship. On board you’ll be given a (very small) cabin which you’ll usually share with a roommate and all meals will be free. Alcoholic drinks aren't free but they are damn cheap in the crew bar! Shore excursions are also free, you just need to request them ahead of time and hope you get something good. On my last contract in Alaska I did over US$2000 worth of free excursions, including things like snorkelling, zip-lining  whale watching, wildlife parks, rafting, etc. And with all these things being free, I was able to save basically all the money I made! To spend on more travel of course.

Clearly excited about free food on board

4) Teach English

Did you know that you don’t need to commit to a yearlong contract to teach English overseas? Neither did I until recently. I had always been interested in teaching English, I even studied for my TEFL certificate, but I didn't want to sign a yearlong contract then go to the other side of the world and absolutely hate it. Every English teaching position I looked into seemed to have a yearlong contract attached to it, which is all well and good if you know you enjoy teaching. But I didn't have a clue if I would even like it, so I hadn't pursued any positions seriously until I came across a company that hires teachers for English camps. I discovered English Beyond Borders (EBB) through a friend that had worked with them, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. In South Korea students have a month break in summer and a month break in winter. During these breaks some of the universities put on English Camps, where the students come for two to four weeks and learn the English language from a native speaker. The university that EBB works with will fly English teachers to South Korea, put them up in a dorm on campus, and pay for all meals (in the cafeteria) while they’re teaching, plus provide an acceptable pay cheque  They even allow teachers to fly home up to a month after their contract is finished, to allow time to explore the country.

            I just did this for the first time this January and, besides the bitter cold, I absolutely loved it. I taught for about two weeks and then hung out in Seoul for another five days or so, although I could have stayed longer. Flights paid for only two weeks of work? Yes please! I am definitely applying next winter if something else doesn't come up.

My Korean students and I
            You don’t need any teaching experience for this job (I didn't have any), but you do need be a native English speaker from an English speaking country and have at least a bachelor’s degree.

5) Strap on a backpack and get out there!

            No excuses, if you want to travel just do it. I did two big backpacking trips, one around South East Asia and one around South America, all on the money I saved selling TVs and video games at Wal-Mart. If an underpaid Wal-Mart associate can do it, so can you.

You too could pretend to march into a giant Pringles can in the Salar de Uyuni

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Board for the Future

I am taking part in Bootsnall's 2012 Indie Travel Challenge, in which they are posting a different prompt, question, or challenge every week for all of 2012. This week they want us to post our 2012 Indie Travel List. Part resolutions list, part bucket list, it's meant to help us focus our travel plans so we can take concrete steps toward achieving our goals.

The other night a group of girlfriends and I got together with a stack of magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and a few bottles of wine, and envisioned what it was we wanted for our future. We cut out images that fit our vision of the future and we each created our own "vision board", a visual reminder of what we want out of life. Some of their vision boards had images of nice homes, families, or wealth. Mine, inevitably, was a little more global in perspective (maybe because I only buy travel magazines):

My vision board

I tried looking through magazines the other girls had brought, and nothing appealed to me. Images of babies, bedroom sets and wedded bliss just didn't fit my vision. So it looks a life of travel for me, and I am just fine with that.

Below is a list of my goals for the future in relation to the vision board above. Some of these are part of my travel bucket list, others are just general goals. And they're not necessarily just for this year, as I'm not sure how much travelling I'll be able to do this year. I figure if I have my goals displayed on my vision board and on my blog, I will be more motivated to achieve them. Here's hoping.

1. Go to Guatemala and learn Spanish. Properly. This is a dream I've had for a long time and I resolve to do it. If I can manage it, I will do it in 2012. A friend of mine is planning a trip to Nicaragua this year, so I may tag along and head to Guatemala on my own afterwards.

2. Volunteer abroad/work overseas. I've already done this, but I plan to do more of it. Maybe teaching English? I want to find a job that I LOVE and look forward to going to every day. (UPDATE: In January 2013 I will be teaching English in Seoul, S. Korea. Maybe I'll love it?)

3. Go back to Africa. If all works out, this could be happening next year. Included in this goal is trekking into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and seeing the gorillas. And visiting Madagascar. I think my life would then be complete. (UPDATE: In February 2013 I'm going back to Tanzania as an intern and research assistant)

4. Take a trip on a boat. Anywhere. Preferably somewhere tropical, but I'm not picky. After sailing on the wooden dhows in Zanzibar and Lamu last year, I think I'm in love. (UPDATE: As of March 2012 I work on a cruise ship so this is technically completed. But I was thinking more sail boat than cruise ship.)

5. Go to India. I have dreams of Varanasi that will not leave me alone.

6. Ride in a hot air balloon. Preferably in Turkey.

7. Go to Colombia. Sleep in a hammock in Tayrona National Park. Trek to the Lost City. Communicate in fluent Spanish after perfecting it in Guatemala.

8. Learn to surf and scuba dive. I think Australia sounds like a good place for both.

9. Buy a better camera and improve my photography skills. Last year I lost one camera (most likely after too many beers at a Vancouver Canucks game) and another was stolen in Nairobbery...I'm presently taking blurry photos with my Blackberry. (UPDATE: Some photos I took in Tanzania will be on display at a local gallery in December, guess my skills are alright!)

10. Get those tattoos I've been thinking about: dragonfly for my grandparents; pink star for Chantelle, my very dear friend that passed away; and Nazca lines just because I love Peru. Now that this is out there in cyberspace I have to actually do it right?

11. See penguins and glaciers in Antarctica. A friend and I have decided to do this for our 30th birthdays. Better start saving now.

12. Get healthy and happy. I'm going to start by hiking more. I live in the mountains, so I don't really have an excuse not to.

There we have it, 12 goals for 2012 and beyond. What are your goals for this year, travel related or otherwise?

This post is part of Bootsnall's 2012 Indie Travel Challenge

Monday, November 7, 2011

Screw Fear

I'm taking part in BootsnAll's 30 Days of Indie Travel Project, in which they are inviting bloggers from around the world to join them in a daily blogging effort reflecting on our past travel experiences.
Today is Day 6 and the topic is FEAR:

People are always telling me how brave I am to travel to all these "exotic" and "scary" places. They always say, "oh, I could never do the things you do, I'd be too afraid". I've had people tell me that they're afraid to stay in a hostel. Really? What exactly is scary about a hostel? You know that movie wasn't real, right?
I don't consider myself all that brave, yet I often find myself doing things other people are too "afraid" to do.
For me, travel is not about being brave. It's not about overcoming my fears, although that is certainly a part of it sometimes. I see it like this: I want to do something, so I am going to do it. It's that simple. Sure, I get scared sometimes. But that's not going to stop me from exploring the world and experiencing everything that I want to experience. Even if I have to do it on my own because everyone else is too scared to come with me.
Everybody gets scared, but that shouldn't stop you from doing a single thing you desire to do. And besides, travelling is not scary. Get out of your damn comfort zone for once.

I'm going to tell you about just a few of the somewhat scary things that have happened to me, and how they have not changed my desire to get out of my comfort zone one single bit. These are not in any particular order.

1. On my first day in Malindi, Kenya, I was talking to this guy named Nero about the things I planned to see and do while I was there. I mentioned that I wanted to go see these particular ruins outside of town, but I didn't know how to get there. So Nero offered to take me there on his motorcycle. I was a little hesitant at first because I had just met this guy, but I finally agreed because I like free transportation and he seemed nice enough. He drove me out to these ruins and then took me to the little beach town of Watamu (which was incredibly beautiful). He even took me into the village where I met his mother, brothers and baby sisters, all living in a little mud house. And we went to his dad's bar, where I got to try munazi, the local palm wine. I went all over the Malindi area with him and saw places tourists rarely see. And then things got weird. I went back to my guesthouse and told him to call me later about a reggae show he had mentioned. I almost immediately passed out due to a long day and when I awoke hours later I had a bunch of missed calls from him and a few irate text messages. Then I heard yelling outside. I peeked out my window and there was Nero yelling at the man at the front desk, who was smart enough to keep the front door locked at all times. I decided right then that I wanted nothing more to do with this guy, put my headphones on, and tried to go back to sleep. In the morning the man at the desk told me that Nero had been threatening him because he wouldn't come upstairs to let me know he was there. He even tried to fight a security guard. He said this went on for quite a while, but he stood his ground and I'm glad he did. That guest house employee was my new best friend.
I avoided Nero for my last couple days in Malindi, but it's not like I wish I hadn't met him or anything. If I had been too scared to get on that motorcycle I would have missed out on all those experiences. I wouldn't have seen the beautiful beaches of Watamu and got a lovely henna design on my arm, I wouldn't have gone through villages where all the children chased after and yelled  "ciao!" at me instead of "jambo", I wouldn't even know what munazi is. So, even though things got scary a little later, I don't at all regret getting on Nero's motorcycle. And I'm sure I will hitch a ride with a stranger again if it means I get a free tour.
Watamu Beach

2. I have always loved baboons. I don't know what it is, but they are one of my favourite animals. So when I was at Victoria Falls in Zambia I was delighted to see dozens of baboons of all sizes all over the place. I assumed they must be used to people since the area was crawling with tourists, so I didn't hesitate to get within feet of them. Well, actually I kind of had to because they were crowding the pathways. After strolling among baboons for a while I stopped to take a picture of a particularly large one sitting on a fence. As I was taking the picture he growled at me a little bit so I backed up. As I backed up another even larger baboon came from the side and jumped on me. I screamed and he grabbed my bag, which was attached to me, and tried to make off with it. I had to fight this baboon for my bag for what felt like minutes (it was probably only a few seconds). Finally he let go and ran away but he ripped the front of my bag nearly off. Shaken, I quickly left for an area with fewer baboons and none of them bothered me again. I'm just happy it was my bag he ripped and not a body part, because that guy was strong and could have done some serious damage like ripping my arm off. I still like baboons, I just think that was a particularly evil one.
The picture I took just before I was attacked

3. I was in Melaka, Malaysia, wandering around the night market with my friend Jodie when I noticed this man that seemed to be standing either at the same table as us or one table over for the last while. I thought I must be imagining it, but as we moved around between vendors he was always close by. Finally I discretely pointed him out to Jodie and we decided to lose him. We pushed into a crowd of people and made our way to a different section of the market, but this time he was clearly following us. He saw us look back straight at him and he knew we were on to him. He started walking faster toward us and we pushed our way faster through the crowd, worried about what exactly this man wanted. We dashed into a brightly lit store and then out a second entrance that took us out onto a side street. We wanted to just leave the area altogether and get away from this guy, but we didn't want him following us home so we stopped at a cafe to wait it out. While we  were eating a delicious piece of cake we saw him walk by the cafe, probably looking for us or some other foreign girls to harass or who knows what else. We waited for a while to make sure he was actually gone and then walked home, checking behind us the whole way. I have no idea why this man was following us, and I'm sure if he tried anything the people in the market would have done something, but that was definitely a scary few minutes of my life. Am I afraid to go back to Malaysia now and peruse night markets? Of course not, strange men could follow us anywhere.
Melaka at night

4. When I was in Thailand I paid for a bus to take me from the east coast to the west coast, where I was headed to Phuket. It was one of those mini buses that are usually reserved for tourists, and this one was filled with my friends and I plus a bunch of other backpackers. I think there were over ten in total. We got on the bus and drove for hours before stopping at a restaurant where they told us we would have to switch buses. OK, that was fine, it happens occasionally. So we waited, and waited, and waited, and then they told us that that bus wasn't coming and if we wanted to get to Phuket that night we would have to pay for another bus. The other travellers and I banded together and refused to pay again, so eventually the person who seemed to be in charge decided to take us to the office. At the office they told us a bus would be coming shortly, so we waited for a while. And then they told us that the bus wouldn't be there til morning so we had to get out of the office as they were closing. We didn't even know the name of the town we were in so there was no way we were going to go out there in the middle of the night and try to find a place to stay until morning. We argued this with the woman running the place and told her there was no way we were leaving that office and we wanted our money back, etc. And then we noticed the menacing-looking men with motorbikes standing at the entrance. As we noticed them a few of them pulled out what looked like broken table legs with nails in them from behind their bikes. And they stood there holding them, like they were threatening us with them. So we had this woman threatening to throw us on the street and these men on the street who looked ready to beat us with table legs. This was not a good situation. We discussed it with each other and finally agreed to just pay this woman again if she would get us to Phuket that night. It's not like it cost a lot, it was just the principle of the thing: we didn't want to pay for the same trip twice. But I would rather pay twice then get beaten up in some unknown town over a bus fare.
Through this experience we made friends with the other backpackers on the bus and a bunch of us ended up going to Patong Beach, Phuket together. We got an awesome hotel there for a ridiculously low price thanks to one of the Aussies on the bus who was headed there, we drank altogether too much Sang Som and towers of beer and pretty much had an awesome time. If it weren't for those scamming bus people we would never have bonded like we did. So our negative situation turned into a positive.
The bus scam crew

Now some people will say, "see, travel is scary, these things will happen to me too!". But guess what? I've travelled through 5 continents and 17 countries and these are the most fear-inducing situations I can come up with off the top of my head. After these, and many other misadventures, I'm still alive and in one piece aren't I? I think that's all that matters. You can be scared of things all you want, but don't be afraid to live. I say screw fear, do what you want.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Budget Shmudget

I'm taking part in BootsnAll's 30 Days of Indie Travel Project, in which they are inviting bloggers from around the world to join them in a daily blogging effort reflecting on our past travel experiences.
Today is Day 4 and the prompt is: MISTAKES - Everyone makes mistakes. We forget to ask for Coke without ice in Mexico and spend the rest of the trip in the bathroom. Or we arrive at the airport for a 7pm flight only to realize the flight left at 7am. Tell us the story of your worst travel mistake.

I don't think I've made any major travel mistakes. Sure, I've made some errors or misjudgments here and there, but they just add to the adventure. Most of my small mistakes have had to do with money. Not bringing enough of it, not budgeting properly, etc.

Like the time I didn't think to bring any cash with me to Jamaica. I just brought my debit card, thinking this was a touristy place full of resorts, there will be an ATM somewhere to get cash out. Having travelled all over the world to places with dodgy or nonexistent ATMs, I really should have known better. I was staying in the small town of Negril (not in a resort), where there were actually a few ATMs....but they were all for local banks not on the Visa Plus or Cirrus network. There was one Scotiabank or some other big bank in town and when I found it there was a lineup ten people deep. When I finally got inside the building I was going to put my card in the machine when I heard a big boom and a crash and the lights went out. I went back outside and there was a power line down in the middle of the road. Awesome. Some locals told me that this had happened before and it would probably be a few days before they got it fixed. Luckily I was there with friends who were smart enough to bring cash and were happy to lend me money. It worked out okay I guess because I spent less money and it gave me an excuse to walk down the beach to town every couple days to check on the ATM, meeting interesting locals along the way.

When I was in Peru I again had to borrow money from a friend. This was more of a budgeting mistake though. I probably drank too much beer and had altogether too many good times in the months leading up to this, spending my money on things I had not budgeted for. But that's not a bad mistake is it? It just means I was enjoying myself. When I arrived in Cusco I went to pay for my Inca Trail trek, for which I was leaving the next morning, but I was over $100 short and the bank wouldn't let me take out any more. I gave them what I had and went in search of the guy I'd been travelling with. He was nice enough to lend me the money to cover it and then I had to make a phone call to my mom, asking her to send me some money. Damn, I hate doing that. By the end of my trip I had to get my mom to pay for my flight home too. But in the end I paid everybody back and I don't regret going over budget at all. Why travel all that way just to spend all your time worrying about money? Enjoy it, you never know when you'll be back again.

You Got a Fast Car, I Want a Ticket to Anywhere

I'm taking part in BootsnAll's 30 Days of Indie Travel Project, in which they are inviting bloggers from around the world to join them in a daily blogging effort reflecting on our past travel experiences. I don't think I'll be writing a post every day, just whenever a topic strikes my fancy.
Today's prompt was MUSIC: "Music and travel memories often go hand in hand. A song can inspire our explorations, or it can take us back to a specific place and time. Tell us about your travel playlist and what it means to you."

       There are many songs that I like to listen to while travelling, or that inspire me to get back on the road. But it's those songs that remind of a certain time and place in my life that will always be special to me. Most of these aren't songs that people would typically associate with travelling. Here are a few of those songs: 

Fast Car - Tracy Chapman

Ahh the Llama Fuckers: Kiel, Kurt, Guy, Hamsah, Dean, Kerry, Justin, and myself. Fast Car will forever remind me of travelling through South America with this awesome group of people. Our group was made up of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and an American. Some of us met in Argentina and we picked up the others in Chile, where we embarked on an epic trip through the Uyuni Salt flats and then through Bolivia up to La Paz. I'm not even sure which country we first started singing Fast Car in, but trying to remember the lyrics became an everyday occurrence. And we were terrible at it. One person would sing one line and forget the next one so someone else would have to chime in. After a few weeks we still hadn't made it past the first verse. 
Wondering where we got a name like Llama Fuckers? Courtesy of a tour guide at the silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia. His name is Efra, look him up if you want to blow shit up in a mine and get a bad ass name like ours. 

I Kissed a Girl - Katy Perry

It's not that I even like the song, because I am not a big Katy Perry fan. But it will always remind me of my best friend Chantelle and a camping trip we took in the summer of 2008. We were camping out in the backwoods of British Columbia, at a place we like to call Moon Rock. To get there you have to drive up into the mountains on a logging road, way out in the middle of nowhere. After a couple of days spent there camping with friends Chantelle and I decided to go on a beer run, a trip that would probably take about an hour by car. We were driving too fast along this winding gravel road, listening to I Kissed a Girl and singing along at the top of our lungs, when we took a corner too fast and started spinning. The car ended up on its side in a ditch and there was no way we were getting it out. Because our cell phones had no service out there we had no way to call for help, so we started walking back to camp. At first Chantelle was crying about the car, but soon I had her laughing at the situation and we sang I Kissed a Girl as we walked back.
Chantelle passed away last year after moving to another province the year before. Now every time I hear this song I think of our last awesome summer spent doing everything together, and how it didn't matter that we were stuck out there in the wilderness far from everyone. Because we were both stuck out there with our best friend. 

Ice Cream Truck - Cazwell
(This one may not be appropriate for young viewers)

Earlier this year I went to Negril, Jamaica with a group of friends. We had three little cabins on the beach, all in a row. There were five of us girls and two guys. Ice Cream Truck was our wake up song. Well it was the girls' wake up song anyway, I'm not sure if the guys really appreciated it. Whoever woke up first in the morning put this song on at full volume so all three cabins could hear, often with the video. Who doesn't love waking up to hot guys with popsicles? At night we had dance parties to it. You can be sure the neighbours loved us. 

Put Your Hands Up For Detroit - Fedde le Grand
When I was on the island of Phuket, in Thailand, my friends and I stayed in Patong beach with some people that we'd met while being scammed into paying for the same bus ride twice. We were threatened by thugs wielding broken table legs, it was quite the adventure. We went out to Patong's main party area, Bangla Road, with these fellow scammees (?). We spent the night bar hopping and I swear this song was playing all night, everywhere. It wasn't really, but it seemed like it through my Sang Som induced haze. I spent the next year or so wondering what the hell this song was. I had the beat in my head all the time, but I couldn't remember any of the words so of course I couldn't look it up. Then one day I was perusing YouTube for new music and I clicked on this video. I don't think I've ever been that excited about a music video where women are dancing in their underwear. Gotta love it when that happens. 

Low - Flo Rida
Thailand, 2008: this song was everywhere. It was an assault on my ears and I couldn't escape it. It was playing on the radio, in clubs, at the full moon parties. We heard it blaring from almost every car that drove past (I'm not exaggerating). I'd be laying in bed and hear it drifting in through the window. Me and the girls I was with still laugh every time we hear it. Apple bottom jeeaans, boots with the fuurrr. 

Roxanne - The Police

In reality, this song reminds me of any hostel bar, anywhere. But I'll go with Loki Hostel in Lima, Peru in April of 2010. It was the the last week of my South American backpacking trip, I was running out of money and I'd decided to spend it (the last of my money and my trip) laying low in Lima. Laying low isn't exactly easy when you choose to stay in one of the best party hostels. I won't go into details, but I will say that Loki is crazy and those large bottles of Cuzquena go down pretty quickly when you're playing the Roxanne drinking game over and over in the hostel bar. 

I'm including these last few songs because they will always remind me of my time spent living in East Africa this year. Plus I think more people need to know and appreciate African music. You don't have to understand what they're saying to enjoy it. 

Mzungu Kichaa

Mzungu Kichaa means "crazy white man" in Swahili. He's a Dane that was raised in Tanzania and sings in Swahili, the official language throughout East Africa. His style of music is called Bongo Flava and it is unique to the coastal area of Tanzania. I met him at a Canada Day party at a Canadian High Commission residence in Dar es Salaam, where he was performing. My friends and I enjoyed his music so much that we bought his album on the spot and went to see him perform again a week later at the Beat Festival, where we were introduced to even more incredible East African artists, like Dela and Yvonne Mwale.  
I don't like this song any more than Mzungu Kichaa's other songs but this video was filmed in Dar es Salaam, the city I lived in, and it makes me feel a bit homesick. 

NWA Baby (Ashawo Remix) - Flavour
This song comes out of Nigeria, but it was HUGE in Kenya when I was there. It was one of those songs that played numerous times per night in every bar. We had it on repeat in our backpackers in Mombasa and I was so happy when I found it on someone's iPod at the floating bar in Lamu (where the customers get to be the DJs). When you're surrounded by the unfamiliar it's nice to find something that you can agree upon with everyone around you. 

Kigeugeu - Jaguar
This is another one of those songs that was playing everywhere while I was in Kenya. The song is basically about everyone from your friend to the pastor screwing you over, but we'll just ignore the meaning and enjoy it :)

I could include so many more songs on this list. In fact I'm thinking of more as I type this (Madonna anybody?), but I think this will do for now. To most people these are just songs, but to me they are Thailand, Bolivia, Kenya. They are my memories. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hello Life. Where Are You Headed?

‎"I see my path, but I don't know where it leads. Not knowing where 
I'm going is what inspires me to travel it." 
- Rosalia de Castro

I love quotes. Other people seem to be able to articulate my feelings so much better than I can. I'm down to one last week  of interning here in Tanzania and I don't know where I'm going with my life. I can see the path, but it gets blurry about two months down the line. I like to think that I have a rough idea of what my life will look like, but in reality I haven't got a clue. What do I do next? Do I apply for those cruise ship jobs I've been thinking about for so long? Or head to Australia and work for a year? Do I go to Guatemala and learn Spanish? Do I apply for more internships and come back to Tanzania? Or do I go home to Canada and apply for graduate programs?
Starting next week I'm taking a month to travel through Kenya and Zambia. I'm hoping that during the time on my own I will be able to think and put things in perspective. Maybe it will help me decide which blurry fork in my path I want to take. Or maybe it won't. 

Whatever I do next may determine the path the rest of my life takes. No matter where I end up, I am excited for the journey

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Lake, a Crater, and the Place Where You Can't See the End

       Last week I did something I didn't think I would be doing for a long time. I didn't plan on coming to Africa this year, but this internship came up and here I am in Tanzania. So last week I went on safari (the Swahili word for journey) in some of the most beautiful places on Earth:  Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. CHECK

       Five other interns and I took a bus from Dar es Salaam up to Arusha in northern Tanzania, a trip that was supposed to take 9 hours but instead took 11 and a half, even with the excessive speed we were going and all the passing we were doing. But this is Africa time, I'm getting used to it after two months. A driver from the safari company, Bush Routes, picked us up at the bus station and took us to get supplies (ie. beer and popcorn). We thought it fitting that the duka (store) we stopped at was called Mzungu Super Market. Mzungu means "white person" here in East Africa, and that's what I'm called nearly every day. It used to bother me, but after a couple of months I guess I've gotten used to that too.

Wearing our Masai shukas in the Ngorongo
The expert tire changers, Hassan and Said
        In the morning of day one we were picked up by our driver/guide Hassan, our cook Said, and a trainee, Richard. We stopped at a market out of town to get Maasai shukas, a checked fabric that is the traditional clothing of the Maasai tribe, to use as blankets. They were originally made of animal hide but now I think they're mass produced in China. Meh, they still look authentic. And they kept us warm while we checked out zebras at 6am.
       Before we set off for the 120 km drive from Arusha to Lake Manyara we stopped to check the tire pressure. Not that it did us much good because about halfway there one of the back tires blew out. Hassan and Said had us back on the road in no time though and we made it safely to the entrance of Lake Manyara. Once we were inside the park entrance we had a slightly larger problem: this time the clutch went. It was starting to seem like this safari was doomed from the get-go. But being the positive, plucky Canadians we are, we cracked open the beers that we were smart enough to get at the Mzungu shop and spent the next three hours drinking our Kilis and watching the troop of olive baboons that had surrounded our truck looking for any ndizi (bananas) we might possibly drop. Sorry rafikis, only bias here.
Baboons and beer. I think they go well together
        After three hours of entertaining ourselves by taking pictures of baboons, a friend of Hassan's that was driving by offered to take us to the hippo pool while the clutch was being repaired. His truck looked cool, and who doesn't want to see hippos? So in we hopped and we went off to the hippo pool. On the way I saw my first ever wild giraffe and then the first live wildebeest I've ever laid eyes on. They were quite a ways away from us, but it was still exciting to see animals other than baboons. Then we came to the hippo pool, where all the hippos were underwater. All you could see were their ears. I now know that is the way a hippopotamus spends most of its life. Seeing one out of water is a major event.
This vervet was happy to see us
        Hassan and the boys must have got the clutch fixed right after we left because a few minutes after we arrived at the hippo pool our truck pulled up. After that all the animals started coming out of the woodwork. Lake Manyara is the most underrated of the three parks we went to, and I absolutely loved it. The setting is beautiful under the dramatic western escarpment of the Rift Valley, and it is the only park in the area that is green all year round. It may not have wildlife everywhere you look, but that's the exciting part: you have to seek them out. We saw more wildebeest and giraffes, and then there were zebras, cute little dik diks, impalas, and many other animals. When we saw the vervet monkeys every one of us yelled out "blue balls!" at the same time, which would be really odd if vervets didn't have bright blue and scarlet genitalia when aroused. There are vervets on a university campus here in Dar, so we'd just been waiting to see them in the wild. Our first day ended up being really good in spite of the breakdowns. Plus dinner was awesome (Said makes probably the best homemade soup I've ever had) and we got to stay in a lodge that night when we had only paid for camping.

       On the way out of Lake Manyara on day two we saw the tree climbing lions that the lake is famous for but many people think are just a rumour because they're rarely seen. But they're real, people! And they climb trees like no other adult lion does. This was the first lion I've ever seen in the wild, and it was in a tree. That was pretty awesome. After the lion sighting we had another hours long drive from the lake to the Serengeti. Along the way
   we saw many Masai, from very young boys to older men, herding goats, cattle, and donkeys just as they have always done. And somewhere along the way, just because it was us in the vehicle and we're not meant to get anywhere in Africa quickly, the same back tire blew again. It didn't take too long to get it fixed but we still ended up getting to the Serengeti late. We had time to do an afternoon game drive, but it was pouring rain so I think most of the animals were in hiding. It's not like there weren't any animals at all though. We still saw herds of buffalo, hartebeest, elephants, ostriches, and more zebras. We also saw Pride Rock (you know, from the Lion King?). It does exist! But then we saw it again. And again. And again. It turns out there are at least a hundred granite kopjes in the Serengeti that could have been Disney's inspiration. Oh well, the first one was exciting anyway. And from then on  I had "the Circle of Life" stuck in my head. Even when the pop top roof didn't close properly during a heavy rain, and we got soaked while inside the truck. But I'm from BC, I love rain.....It's all part of the adventure.
What? Getting rained on inside isnt normal?
       We got to our campsite and started to set up our tents just as the sun was setting. Then this Aussie guy appeared out of nowhere and said "you can't put those tents there, there are safety rules", and he got very angry and rude. Apparently tents can't be close together for safety reasons? What are they going to do, catch on fire? I think we would  rather be closer together with the lions, hyenas, and warthogs roaming around outside. Our guide, who camps here all the time, had never heard of this rule but we moved anyway. Normally I love Aussies, but this guy was a major jerk. No wonder there was so much space around his tent.

         On the third day we got up very early for the morning game drive and saw the sun rise in the Serengeti, and once again "the Circle of Life" began playing over and over in my head. We got a much better view of the Serengeti on this day than we did on the day before, and I could see where it's name came from. Siringit, in Maa, the language of the Maasai, means "place where you can't see the end" (in the words of Hassan). Or more simply put, "endless plain". In the light of day the Serengeti stretched on forever, and I really couldn't see the end. It was like the Canadian Prairies, except there weren't any farmhouses or towns to break it up. In the Serengeti there are only lonely acacia trees and herds of animals, and the occasional Maasai village which blends into its surroundings.
Sunrise in the Serengeti

       The Serengeti, easily Tanzania's most famous park, covers an area of 14,763 sq km and is contiguous with the Masai Mara in Kenya. It is between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara that the great migration, a mass movement of over one million wildebeest in search of food and water, occurs every year. This is the largest movement of animals on Earth, and seeing it on the Discovery Channel made me fall in love with this (what some would call ugly) animal called the wildebeest. They do have a quite comical appearance, and according to African legend they were assembled from spare parts, but I have a soft spot for them. I think we just missed the migration this year, but we still saw the occasional bearded rebel wildebeest that stayed behind. What we did see on this day were more elephants and warthogs and hoofed mammals such as gazelles, and zebras (there are 200,000 zebras in the Serengeti alone). And we saw not one, or two or three, but four leopards. Three of them were a mother and her two teenage cubs playing together, and then we saw another lone leopard later. We also saw a very handsome male lion lounging on a mound with what appeared to be a collar around his neck. I guess they're studying him, but a collar doesn't seem to me to be the best way to study a wild animal.
Impalas keep their eyes on two playing leopards
        We had more truck adventures in the Serengeti, of course, because we're just lucky like that. First we had another flat tire (a different tire this time though) and then we got stuck in the mud. Another truck stopped to help but we still had six girls in flip flops standing in the mud trying to push the truck out. On top of that our truck started to have radiator troubles, and the boys had to put litre after litre of water into it. On our way from the Serengeti to the Ngorongoro Crater that afternoon we had to stop numerous times to let the truck cool down and put more water in it. I don't even know how much water we went through. We actually had to get bottles of water from other safari groups driving by, it was that bad. And one of the windows started leaking. Luckily not on my side this time, because our quick fix of stuffing a dirty rag in the window didn't work all that well.

      Late in the afternoon we stopped at a Maasai village that does tours. Not really because we wanted to, but because the truck needed to cool down anyway. The tour that we did was very awkward. We paid 20,000 Tsh each (about $12CAD) to go into this village, where we were rushed around and then rushed out. We first went with a Maasai in groups of two into a house. The Masai live in small round houses called bomas, which are made by the women out of sticks and mud. They have no windows, only a small entrance and a very small hole in the roof for light and for the smoke from their fire to escape. The boma I entered had a very low ceiling and only had room for two beds and a fire pit. Five people live in this home; I hope they like each other.  The bomas are arranged in a circle inside a fence made of sticks. In the centre of the circle is another enclosed area where baby cows and goats are kept, and on the edge of the village are fenced in areas where the adult goats and cattle are kept in close quarters at night. We paid a visit to the cattle and the goats and then we were rushed outside the fence to a small building that serves as the school. The children were in the school at almost 6pm, so they were obviously there just for the tourists. We were in the school for all of a minute and heard the children sing part of a song before we were ushered out again, followed by a room full of dirty children. We were brought to an area where they were selling overpriced beaded jewelry and we were urged to buy something before we were rushed off back to the truck. This whole experience was disappointing and I hate that people live like this, in this village that's basically been set up for tourists.
A Maasai boma

       That night we set up camp right on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Once again we set up close to another tent, but this camper didn't mind. He said we could move our tents closer, or even come on into his if we got lost. How nice! During the night there were wild boars sniffing around the tents. We didn't see them but we sure saw what they left behind. I'm just happy I didn't step in it.
Chilling in our tent on the rim of the crater, staying safe from wild boars
     We definitely saved the best for last. Hassan had taken the truck into the mechanics the night before so were good to go and on the fourth day we got up before sunrise and descended over 600 metres from the heavily forested rim of the Ngorongoro Crater to the plains of the massive caldera below.The Ngorongoro Crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, an 8300 sq km area consisting of the Crater Highlands and vast stretches of plains, bush, and woodland, as well as a long string of volcanoes and calderas, most of which are inactive. Large calderas such as the Ngorongoro Crater are now teeming with vegetation and wildlife because of their fertile soils and favourable climate. At about 20 km wide the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest calderas in the world and is said to have the most dense concentration of wildlife in Africa, and this seems pretty accurate. Animals flock here due to the permanent water and grassland. Everywhere you look there are herds of zebra, wildebeest, impalas, gazelles, and massive buffalo. I couldn't believe how many wildebeest there were. They may have already migrated north from the Serengeti, but there were hundreds of thousands of them in the crater. And where there were wildebeest there were zebras. I think most of the 200,000 zebras that are supposed to be in the Serengeti are actually here. I've never seen so many animals in one day.

       The many animals we saw also included several hyenas. There were some on their own but there was also a large family, including pups, playing and darting in and out of their den. Hyenas are surprisingly cute when you see them up close. I always had this image of hyenas giggling maniacally, piling on top of each other and rolling around as they tear into the flesh of a recently killed wildebeest. Or even disemboweling still-live prey on the run. Hyenas are terrible, frightening creatures, but when they're just hanging out, sleeping next to road or playing with their pups you kind of forget all that. They look rather sweet actually. If a little bloody.

Cows on steroids?

    And the best part of this whole safari? The lions. We saw quite a few lions in the distance, mostly sleeping, but we did see a couple males out for a walk. And then we came upon three females: two laying down in the grass and one literally right on the road. Being this close to a lion is a crazy feeling. We were obviously in the safety of the truck, but still, she was right there! This is nothing like seeing them in a zoo. This lioness likely just took down a large animal, like the dead buffalo we saw surrounded by other lions. She is powerful, she is beautiful, and she doesn't care in the slightest that we're there. She was just sauntering around the road between trucks and even laying down right behind some of them. I was standing up out of the top of the truck, practically right next to her, separated by nothing more than a few feet of air. If she was desperate for food she could have easily had me or anyone else there for breakfast. Not that this ever happens in the crater, but the possibility is there. Ever watched The Ghost and the Darkness? Yeah, that was a true story and man-eating lions exist. Even if this was the only exciting thing that happened on this safari, being this close to these massive felines would have made it all worth it. 

        Even on our way out of the crater we were continually seeing animals. We actually saw hippos out of water! One big guy sleeping in the grass and a whole family, including a baby, playing by the water. Just to prove to us that they do come out of the water occasionally. We saw a lot more zebras, some elephants, and some monkeys just before we started the climb out of the crater. On the very bumpy and windy (we stood up out of the truck the whole way) way up we each cracked another Kili, put on some Bob Marley, and watched the herds on the crater floor fade away til they looked like ants. When we reached the rim of the crater we saw another tree-climbing lion. She crossed the road right behind us, and walked into the woods and up a tree. Two sightings in one safari? That's luck. 

These guys eat prickle bushes. Yum?

Probably the last tree climbing lion I'm going to see for a while

     Despite the challenges we faced, I think this was probably the best safari in the history of safaris. We may have had a lot of car troubles, but it was still an incredible trip, and it was definitely the girls I was with that made it so.  If even one person had been angry, upset, or sullen about any of the problems we had it would have changed the mood of the whole trip. But J, K, D, A, M and myself were really positive the entire time and made the best out of every situation. Whether it was a leaking truck, a flat tire, disgusting drop hole toilets, angry campers, or the lack of cheetahs and rhinos (not so surprising, as they are both endangered), we all accepted it and made the best of it. How many other people get to visit a mechanic shop in the middle of the Serengeti? Twice? I couldn't have asked for a better group of girls to travel with. Driving through the plains of Africa with these girls, singing Buffalo Soldier with a Kili in hand, surrounded by zebras, hyenas, lions, and wildebeest will forever be one of my favourite memories.
You may have eluded me this time rhino, but I still love you

      This trip also left me with hope for the future of my adopted home of the last couple months. Twenty eight percent of Tanzania's area is under some form of protection such as national parks, game reserves, and conservation areas. This is a higher percentage than any other country and is a huge commitment for such a poor nation. Living here in Tanzania I've learned that the Tanzanian government makes a lot of poor decisions, but the decision to preserve heaven on Earth was definitely the right one. It leaves me wondering what else the government of this country could do if they cared enough to do it.