Category

Travel Advice

Africa, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Don’t Take My Word For It

Everything I have ever written, everything I will ever write, represents an infinitesimal slice (mine) of an infinitely complex whole.

I may speak of the universality of experiences such as fear, joy, loss and love. And I do believe in the value of sharing knowledge. But still, someone else’s words will never be enough.

A single truth only brings us so far.

I can write that it is Saturday, that I am in Muizenberg, South Africa, that the sun is hot and high for so early in the day. And that is all true.

I can write that I am sitting at one of the southernmost edges of the world watching the waves roll in against a backdrop of rocky peaks; that the wind and my hair and the sky taste of salt; that my shoulders ache from surfing; that seashells crunch under my feet as I walk. And that is all true.

But this information is mine only. What of yours?

The Buddha was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for anything; go find out for yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) In the Jewish tradition, debate and inquisitiveness are encouraged. We are not to simply take another’s words (or even doctrine) as truth, but rather—to fall back on a much-overused phrase—to discover our own.

I believe much of the world’s wisdom boils down to this:

Go and see.

Today, I was going to write a snapshot of Muizenberg, a small coastal town just a thirty-minute train ride from Cape Town. But I changed my mind.

You can Wikipedia that, and I think this is more important.

“Go and see” does not necessarily mean, “Drop everything and go travel the world.” Although, if that is within your means and your calling, I certainly recommend it.

“Go and see” means, “Experience the world—any world, your world—for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.”

Perhaps you won’t venture to the southernmost edge of the world, but touch the edge of something.

Maybe you won’t be crossing international borders, but find a limit, a frontier, and surpass it.

You may not “watch the sunset from every coast,” but you can watch the sunset every evening—and if it’s the watching that counts, then that’s kind of the same thing.

There are many ways to seek, many ways to wander, many ways to cross borders; I share only mine. And while I hope you enjoy seeing a certain world through my particular gaze, I also hope you will go and see, because these words, these truths, are only the beginning.

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Adventure, Travel Advice

12 Ways to Move/Travel to a New City/Country Where you Don’t Know Anyone—and Totally Rock It

I write about venturing into the unknown often.

You might say it’s my favorite theme—in life and in art. You could say it’s my greatest fear—in love and in travel. You could say it is a subject so rich and fascinating it proves an inexhaustible source of meaning and poetry.

You could say any of those things, and you would be right.

Ah, the not-knowing…it is terrifying, exhilarating, life-affirming indeed. But maybe you want a bit more practicality and a bit less poetry; maybe you have concrete travel plans on the horizon (even tenuous possibilities or dreams), and poetic rambling philosophizing isn’t helping all that much. I get that.

I drop myself into cities and countries where I know no one on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge and the freedom, but I also forget that this is a practice like any other, and may seem somewhat inaccessible at first. I want to demystify it.

The following suggestions stem from my years of solo traveling. I don’t necessarily follow them all for every trip, but one could in theory. I believe each one has a deep potential to cushion the fall into unknown territory.

1. Reach out to friends and acquaintances.
A simple “Do I know anyone in _____?” on Facebook can yield unexpected results. This method has found me friends (and often couches) in otherwise totally anonymous destinations from Prague and Montenegro to Berlin, Sicily and more.

2. Mine for connections.
Social media is a multifaceted beast, but it really comes in handy for certain kinds of travel. Asking my Facebook friends (and sometimes blog followers), “Does anyone have any connections in ___?” in the past has found me a house to rent in Cape Town, a Shabbat dinner in Paris, a yoga teaching gig in Zanzibar and so much more. The more I travel, the more this network grows—exponentially, it would seem. Couchsurfing is another amazing resource for making connections for friends and couches both.

3. Be bold—ask questions.
Every piece of information we could possibly need is available on the ground. No need to read travel forums, or even look up directions (although by all means do both if it sets your mind at ease). Depending on where I am in the world, there are metro maps, info centers, or throngs of aggressive taxi drivers at every possible port of arrival. Barring that, the local person sitting next to me on the bus/plane/train/ferry is usually an excellent resource.

4. Get Lost and Like It.
I have developed an impressive habit of always going the wrong way first. If it’s straight, I go left. If it’s left, I go right. I then employ method #3, ad infinitum, to take the longest route possible to my intended destination (thank you, legs). Getting lost is a common consequence of going in blind; even if we don’t like it, we can bring our sense of humor along for the walk.

5. Set up a work trade.

While it is 100% possible (and yes, fun and exciting) to just go explore a new place and find your way upon arrival, I have often found more depth and connection through work exchanges. Websites like wwoofing, workaway and helpx are just a few of many platforms for finding interesting, short-term placements abroad. Working or volunteering is, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to integrate into a community and create my place in the formerly unfamiliar. It is also an incredibly practical resource for information.

6. Set up an Airbnb.
If, like me, you need to work while you wander (or, also like me, you don’t want to commit to too much socializing), but still want an entree into local community, Airbnb is unparalleled. Set your price, browse your options, and choose a host who seems interesting. I’m still in contact with several of my Airbnb hosts, and owe unique memories (like tasting the best chocolate gelato in the whole world) to them.

7. Keep up with hobbies.
I always carry two extra pairs of shoes with me: dance and climbing. Dancing tango in Kenya, salsa-ing in Berlin and climbing in Cape Town, I’ve connected with people I never would have met otherwise. Same goes for surfing in Morocco and hiking in Spain. Those are my passions; follow yours, and you’ll find your people—anywhere.

8. Become a regular.
There is something uniquely grounding in being a regular customer (in a cafe, restaurant or even corner store)—in simply being recognized. When our default mode is anonymity, feeling seen, known, familiar offers a powerful sense of place. Especially when I have a few weeks or months somewhere, I find myself accumulating these “regular” spots. Though utterly departing from all known routine is a key—even necessary—element of travel for me, glimpses of familiarity within the unknown provide welcome—even necessary—moments of respite.

9. Let go of should’s.
I believe having a mile-long checklist of “must sees” and “must dos” limits potential for spontaneous discovery. I tend to get a decent amount of touristing in when I visit a new place, but I try not to force it. Excursions happen organically—often with new friends—when I genuinely want to do them, and not because I feel like I’ll be failing at travel if I don’t.

10. Cook.
My experience of travel altered hugely when I started to prepare a lot of my own meals (just as I used to when I lived in one place). Not all, of course, since tasting local cuisines is hands down the best part of traveling, but many. Wandering local markets, I’ve honed new language skills, felt rooted in my home-of-the-moment, and saved serious money. Choosing an Airbnb with a kitchen facilitates this, as does staying with friends. Cooking a beautiful meal has long been my favorite way to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

11. Talk to strangers.
They’re not scary—usually. When they are creepy, it’s usually pretty clear to my intuition. Strangers are typically one of three things: treasure troves of insider information, friends you haven’t met yet, or an excellent story for later. Instructions for talking to strangers: eyes up, shoulders down, words out.

12. When all else fails, fail.
I have days—sometimes weeks—where my social self goes into hibernation, my patience drops to zero, and the challenge of the unknown shifts from exhilarating to tiresome. When that happens, I take time to write, read, call friends and family, and simply be. No one can be “on” all the time. This lifestyle of exploration and discovery has curves and cycles, just like any other. These moments of pause make the adventure all the richer.
 
May your journeys be—yours.

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White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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Nature, Travel Advice

This is What Conscious Travel Looks Like

I wrote this for a masters application, but I think it’s worth sharing with more than a few admissions officers! What follows is an incomplete, but nonetheless important, analysis of the social, political and environmental issues facing the growing international tourism industry—and what we can do about them…

***

The tuk-tuk driver is angry. The passengers are drunk. Instigating.

They don’t want to pay. Too much. A crowd of other drivers and tourists collects around the ugly scene. It’s past midnight.

The situation nearly escalates to blows before friends of the passengers pay for them, and the tuk-tuk driver withdraws, hardly pacified. A bitter tasted remains in the air as the crowd disperses.

Everything wrong with a global, multi-billion dollar industry comes to a head in these few moments. Economic disparity. Cultural ignorance. Tension: between tourist and local. Competition: between local and local. Anger: everywhere.

In several years I have witnessed an excess of these scenarios; it is difficult to choose just one.

Tourism is the fastest-growing industry worldwide, surpassing oil, agriculture and automobiles. Many economies already depend on it, and more will join their ranks as the global middle class continues to expand, nurturing a growing curiosity about other people and other places. International tourist arrivals are forecasted to reach 1.8 billion annually by 2030—up 66% from their current levels.

If anyone thinks tourism is a frivolous area of concern, now would be the time to think again. The industry has a far-reaching impact, touching environmental, social and political sectors with long, insistent fingers.

Now, there are meaningful, constructive, sustainable and mutually beneficial ways for tourism to develop in a community, and then there is everything else.

Unsustainable tourism looks like luxury hotels in Zanzibar that truck in their drinking, washing and toilet water from the mainland (the island was never made to support such population density), and then flush it into the no-longer-so-pristine Indian Ocean. Unethical development looks like private tour companies in Shanghai that exploit local peoples—foreign tour operators organizing for tourists and expats to visit local homes, schools and community centers in order to offer clients an “authentic” experience, yet forgetting to allow those local communities the privilege of self-representation. Economically-damaging tourism looks like property costs rocketing in Cape Town—rendering the cost of living in the city prohibitively expensive to most South Africans, while European visitors happily pay top-euro for short-term rentals.

I have observed all of these trends up close. Working in media and travel, I regularly witness the negative impact of tourism—and the narratives around it—on local communities. I observe traditions warped to a narrow, outsider’s view of what they should be; competition for American dollars festering amongst former friends; natural havens destroyed by overeager and under-planned development; real, complex history and conflict glossed over by an appealing portrait of tropical paradise.

Initiatives in sustainable tourism, ethnotourism, slow travel and community-driven tourism are numerous and promising, however.

As I see it, for the travel industry to move forward—toward promoting cross-cultural understanding, integration and peace, and away from perpetuating disparity, conflict and ignorance—it must proceed in the following ways:

>> Industry professionals must empower local communities to represent themselves—their stories, traditions, spiritual practices and identities—and move the typical industry narratives far beyond the usual stereotypes and generalizations. Words like “authentic,” “real,” and “untouched”—frequently used in marketing by tourists, professionals and locals alike—must be scrutinized for the rigid cultural portraits they propagate and the complexities they belie.

>> Local communities must leave space for multiple storylines, idiosyncrasies and complexity to coexist. The wealthy, privileged male perspective commonly embodied by local leaders in tourism is not the only one. Creating space for female voices, religious and ethnic minorities, and other less favored stories to be heard—diversifying tour guides, business owners, service industry professionals and marketing materials—will be a crucial element of inclusive development.

>> Both local communities and industry professionals must seek to integrate education, interaction and meaningful connection to place wherever possible. It is not enough to gloss over conflict and offer an artificial, romanticized image of a place and its history and people. Moving beyond one-line summaries and fantasized, fetishized representations of otherness, we begin to foster true cross-cultural awareness.

>> Foreign visitors must seek out experiences of cultural exchange and learning. The power of asking questions, listening (with open ears and closed lips), and maintaining an open mind and heart cannot be exaggerated. Good intentions are not enough; tourists have tremendous power to change industry standards by demanding sustainability, social justice and cultural awareness from the industry they fuel.

In addition, growing numbers of Chinese and African tourists—both domestic and international—are introducing a new demographic into the industry, with all the challenges that entails. Any initiative in sustainable, socially conscious travel must take into account the varied cultural norms and values of a shifting clientele. Working to understand the market they wish to influence, industry professionals will better develop it to positive effect.

Lastly, in particularly conflict-prone regions such as Israel and Palestine or post-conflict regions like Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is crucial to take into account the intersection of political events—past and present—and international tourism. Much as one might try, a visit to a foreign country does not occur in a vacuum. The political climate and history of a place are unavoidably relevant to the foreigner, impacting as they do the development of the tourism sector, the on-the-ground experience of the visitor, and the very identities with which one interacts. Moreover, the foreigner acts as a mirror and ambassador, influencing, at the micro level, global awareness and perception of a given place. Given these considerations, we cannot underestimate the power of 1.8 billion people moving around the globe to reflect and influence political, social and cultural dynamics.

The responsibility for further development lies not only with industry professionals, nor only with local communities or foreign visitors. Indeed, only with a concerted effort from all three sides will this massive modern entity act as a positive force for understanding, tolerance and harmony.

***

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Nomadism, Travel Advice

How to Pack One Bag for Life (What’s in my Backpack)

It’s been two years that I’ve lived out of one bag.

In two weeks I will take a second (small) suitcase with me to Cape Town, so I might as well write this while it’s still true.

One of you lovely readers asked me what’s in my bag, and I’m glad you did, because packing lists are one of my favorite things to write. I’m serious. Growing up, I would start making my list weeks before family vacations; I started packing pretty far in advance, too. I’ve stopped making lists (but kept the habit of packing way too early), so this is a fun throwback.

A few caveats:

I chase the sun. If you expect your life to include winter, you’ll need more warm things.

I have my hobbies, you have yours. Your “extras” will likely be completely different from mine.

I leave things, give things away and pick things up near-continuously. It is useful to have friends and family, in whose basements, attics and closets you can leave things you don’t want to let go of but don’t want to carry with you (especially books). It is also useful to get used to giving away something old to make room for something new.

I carry many extraneous items. I suggest it to you, too, even if it’s impractical. It’s the difference between going on vacation and carrying “home” with you.

I will write this packing list like I write recipes—Italian style, not-too-specific, and with room for creative interpretation.

I’ve split the following list into (I think) logical sections. I hope it may help someone pack for a nomadic existence, a long backpacking trip or an extended stint abroad. At the very least, I hope it will give you a glimpse into the very practical side of long-term vagabonding, and make you smile.

One Bag for Life

For when it gets chilly:

  • Bright blue wool socks for which your friends will mercilessly mock you
  • A shower-resistant outer shell (when it rains, you will wish it were rain-resistant too)
  • Bright blue fleece, because there’s no such thing as too much turquoise
  • Sturdy boots/shoes (right now I have trail shoes, but sometimes I opt for boots)
  • A sweater, preferably stolen from a friend

For all the time:

  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 pair yoga pants
  • 1 pair “Toby pants” (also known as harem pants by those who don’t know me)
  • 1 pair jeans/passably normal pants
  • X pairs socks and underwear (how many? it depends how often you want to do laundry…)
  • 5-6 shirts (some for hiking, some for exercise, and some for normal person-ing)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • Toiletries (pure argan, coconut or almond oil, natural bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, tea tree oil, natural deodorant, comb, nail clippers, lip balm, sunblock—yes, that’s it!)
  • First aid kit (which you will never use but carry around forever “just in case”)
  • Sunglasses and glasses
  • Passport, expired driver’s license, bank card, and other assorted bits of paper that sometimes come in handy
  • Birkenstock sandals
  • Reusable bags (for food-shopping, beach day-ing, or hanging on doorknobs to look at and wonder why you’re carrying so many extra bags)
  • Sarong, which serves equally well as scarf, towel and pillow cover

Because I’m a woman who likes dresses:

  • 1 long skirt.
  • 2 dresses, neither of which are as practical as they should be, and one bright red

Me-specific things (yours will be different):

  • Yoga mat (I’ve gone with Manduka’s travel mat—it doesn’t get any lighter, it also doesn’t get any less cushioned)
  • Climbing shoes
  • Dance shoes (the super lightweight practice kind—heels are heavy!)
  • Books (rotating; right now The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a book of Italian fairy tales by Carlo Collodi, and Bushido’s Way of the Warrior)
  • Notebooks and many, many pens (you will lend them to people and not get them back, so it’s good to have 5-10 on hand at any given time)
  • Laptop (for work; if you don’t work online, maybe skip the laptop—it’s a hassle)
  • Sleeping bag (and sometimes, but not right now, tent or camping hammock)

Unnecessary but still important things:

  • A large quartz crystal
  • A large quantity of jewelry
  • A large camera
  • Smartphone (for staying up-to-date with loved ones and total strangers)
  • Gifts (for people in the next place you’re heading)
  • Oversized purple headphones
  • Smaller-sized purple headphones
  • Pretty scarves to put on top of ugly tables

And just like every time I pack my bag, I feel like I’m forgetting something really, really important, but I haven’t left anything out, so that must be everything!

The moral of this story? We actually can fit everything we need into one bag—for life, or at least for a few years. It’s probably going to be too heavy, and we’ll probably find ourselves missing variety (of shoes especially), but not nearly as often as we’d expect. We’ll get accustomed to accumulating more belongings when we pause for a while, and equally accustomed to shedding them when it’s time to move once again.

The other moral: Good food is always money well spent. So are experiences. Our stomachs are like endlessly refillable backpacks, and our brains are like slightly leaky, endlessly expandable suitcases. Fill them.

***

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

It’s. A. Trap! (Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal)

Ourika Valley, near Marrakech, Morocco

“Very good price. Very low. Better than free.”

We’re standing outside the van on the road to Ourika Valley, a verdant, majority-Berber region about two hours from Marrakech, popular with tourists for its many waterfalls.

A half-dozen camels on short tethers wait for curious tourists to approach. It’s well past 11 o’clock, but the sun is just making it over the mountains to warm the deep valley.

The man speaking proffers a tangle of necklaces. Plastic. The artisanal products are waiting in well-planned shops, with tougher hagglers behind the counter. My companions for the day, a French couple from outside of Paris, laugh and tell him that’s a good marketing plan.

In a way it is, but then…maybe not.

You see, I don’t want anything for free (unless it’s a sincere gift). I don’t want the cheapest price (anymore). I want a fair price.

And that’s a very different thing.

Ostensibly we’ve stopped for photos, but the view was around the last bend, and we’re really here to have time to spend money. We’ll stop at three more tourist establishments (some would call them traps, but I won’t today and I’ll explain why soon) before actually reaching our intended destination.

> The Argan Oil Cooperative. Smiling women sit outside the building grinding argan nuts into a paste, which will later be separated into cosmetic oil and the base ingredient for savon noir (black soap). They beckon us to sit beside them. Ashkid, ashkid. (Come, come.) You can take pictures, we’re told. No problem. There’s a dish in front of the women with a few dirham notes in it. We can leave money there.

> The Berber House. A traditional Berber house, which I might have found more exciting had I not spent a great deal of the last five weeks visiting my Berber friends in their (yes) Berber Houses. We’re shown the kitchen, the store room, the family room, the hamam (bath) and the backyard. You can take pictures. No problem. On the way out, there’s a well-placed souvenir shop and a donation box for the welcoming Berber House family.

> The Guide. We stop in the village near the waterfalls to pick up the guide. We haven’t asked for the guide, but the guide is going to come with us. He accompanies our small group halfway up the trail, to the first set of falls, and then tells us it’s time to turn back. When we insist on continuing, and he insists on not going back without us, I convince him to wait at the halfway-up cafe while we finish the hike.

Now, I don’t like being forced to pay for things I didn’t ask for or want in the first place. I also don’t like not paying someone for work completed or services rendered. I don’t like feeling cheated out of my money. And I don’t like feeling I’ve cheated someone out of their fairly-earned money.

Most people in the world would probably agree with those sentiments.

I think all of these scenarios and concerns come down to the same fundamental issue: fairness. Fairness to local people working in the tourism sector, and fairness to tourists seeking to spend their money well (ethically, reasonably and in a way that feels good to them).

So, what’s fair?

I’m going to seriously oversimplify for a moment. The tourist-local marketplace dynamic—as I see it—breaks down like this:

Tourists don’t want to feel ripped off or trapped. (That’s a low bar.) These things are traps: Telling someone to take a picture (no problem, pictures are free!), and then asking them to pay for it. Insisting someone take a bracelet as a gift—and then insisting they pay for it. Following someone through the souk, though they have clearly stated they do not want a guide—and then asking them to pay for it. (These are all common experiences for unsuspecting foreigners in Morocco.)

Tourists do want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Sure, some are pinching pennies, but most just want fair. Many, like me, will feel frustrated when they know an item’s market price, and then are asked to pay four times that because said item has been handily transported into a souvenir shop. They don’t want to pay “tourist prices.”

Local people want to make a decent living. They see foreign tourists and assume (reasonably) that if they had enough money to pay for a plane ticket to Morocco, they also have enough money to pay a few dollars above market price for a bottle of oil, silver necklace, taxi ride, and everything else. They might also encourage (or push) said tourists to spread their money evenly—a few gifts at the Argan Cooperative, a dollar to the Berber House, a tip to the guide. From this perspective, those tourist establishments mentioned above are not traps, but simply an integral component of the day’s adventure.

Some believe that tourists should pay tourist prices, because they can. And hey, I get where they’re coming from.

Naturally, I also get where tourists are coming from. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think the fair solution is neither “equal” (tourists often do earn significantly more than the locals they’re buying from, so why shouldn’t they pay more too?), nor excessive (no one likes traps and cheating). Rather, it’s somewhere in the middle, where everyone is happy—or at least not pissed off.

So, when buying abroad, keep three questions in mind:

1. How much is this worth to me? (How much do I want to spend on it? Keep in mind, for perspective, what you would spend at home.)

2. What is the “market price”? (What would this cost a local?)

3. What can I afford? (What’s my budget for this day? Week? Holiday? Will this meal/souvenir/excursion put me over?)

The “fair” price exists somewhere at the nexus of those three answers.

Happy shopping!

*** 

And to justify this blog title:

 

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Strangers on a Train

“We’re on our way to bible study,” says my friend. (He likes to make up stories, but let’s get real, who doesn’t?)

It’s 10:00 pm, and we’re on the Circle Line, retracing our steps into Central London after hopping the wrong train. Across from us sits a young couple—friendly, talkative, and maybe a touch too willing to believe his absurd stories. They are sipping from a water bottle of vodka and fanta, on their way to a night out “raving.”
Thus begins my Saturday night this past weekend. My friend alights at King’s Cross Station to head home, and I follow these strangers (soon to be friends) to Fabric, one of London’s most famous House clubs.
We will meet another stranger on our way out of the Tube, and together walk to the venue. We will spend the next four or five hours dancing to some of the best House music I’ve heard in a year, adding new strangers (new friends) to our group as we went, and they will become, over the course of the night, no longer strangers.
And all because we had all looked up across the aisle of a Circle Line train and said hello.
A week prior, I went to meet my coworker in Oxford for the first time. On the trip home, the train was rush-hour packed—standing room only. Series of unexpected events, I found myself squished next to a fellow American; as foreigners are wont to do, we struck up a conversation, found it fascinating, and continued it over a particularly delicious dinner in Notting Hill.

And all because I had asked (in my unmistakably American accent), “Is this the train to London?”
When did we grow afraid of strangers? When did the popular wisdom for travelers shift from, trust the road and the good Samaritans who walk it, to, trust no one? When did two strangers—or four strangers—talking on the train become the exception, rather than the rule?
I have an advantage, in that nothing about my thin five foot five frame and wide smile inspires fear or mistrust. There are fewer barriers for me to cross to arrive at the human beings inside their protective circles.
Some of my most entertaining nights out, fascinating conversations and closest connections have occurred simply because I looked up and said hello. Though I occasionally forget and succumb to the comfortable bubble of my own world, I try to make a rule of talking to strangers—I have yet to regret it.
And then, when you think about it, aren’t we all just strangers on a train?
Busy watching for our station, looking out the window, or within, or anywhere but around us, we don’t realize that the train is it. There are no stations, no stops, and for all we know no destination.
Our fellow passengers? We’re stuck with them—better hope they don’t smell—and we can make of that a party or a burden. The Buddhists will tell you the train is an illusion; the Jews will tell you it’s the only thing that’s real. One thing I know for certain: It’s what we make of the ride that counts.
So we can either look up and say hello, and make the journey worthwhile, or we can keep staring at our shoes, waiting for the conductor to call our stop.

Try saying hello to a stranger today and see what happens. Maybe they’ll tell you their life story. Maybe they won’t respond. Maybe that stranger will change your life—or your day, or your next ten minutes. But no matter what, isn’t it more interesting than your toes?

***
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numundo, minimalism
Adventure, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Traveling Light: “Only What I Can Carry” Photo Project

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015. Helsinki, Finland.

[This is only an excerpt from a longer piece about this project written for elephant journal. For the full story please click here.]

The afternoon sun is kissing the tops of the pines surrounding my friend’s house, and I am packing.

I’ve had an idea in my head for months now, and seeing as I’m in no hurry for once, this seems like the perfect opportunity to realize it.

I’ve been living out of my purple, 60-liter Osprey backpack for just under a year now. This is the second time I’ve done so, and I can pack in 10 minutes—15 tops—when needed.

Today, though, I take my time to fold my clothing into neat piles and gather every last small belonging into a compact square in the center of the floor.

I’m not exactly sure why, but taking stock seems important…

The more I travel and the longer I wander, the better I understand how much I need, and how much I am able to carry. (And still, always, it is too much.)

More and more, too, I recognize the difference between need and desire—the meaning of priorities. I don’t need even half of what I choose to carry with me. I do in fact need my laptop for work, and maybe a few changes of clothing and some warm layers.

But my practice poi? Small bag of jewelry? Pretty shirts, oversized headphones and red lipstick? Indulgences and whimsy—and I know it…

What I keep—I recognize I keep out of attachment, not out of necessity…

This is only what I can carry.

Some of it I need; some of it I want, but if it’s too much weight or doesn’t all fit, something has to go.

This isn’t for everyone; hell, it may not always be for me. Nevertheless, this is a viable way to live, and—I believe—a powerful exercise in living simply.

I hope these images might inspire you to try the same—even if it’s only for a walk around the block! 😀

[This is only an excerpt from a longer piece about this project written for elephant journal. For the full story please click here.]

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Culture, Travel Advice

The Difference A Word Makes

[Greetings from Nungwi, Zanzibar, my new home-for-the-moment! It was a tough choice, but I decided to switch tracks and will now be living here and teaching yoga for the summer. Come visit. J]

***

Considering I will be here for so long, and mostly on my own, I decided my favorite method of dealing with unwanted attention and attempted sales—the “ignore and conquer” tactic—may not be my best option here. After all, I don’t really want to be that rude muzungu lady who never talks to anyone for three months (even if, secretly, I would be totally happy to have three reclusive months free of dealing with strangers).
Instead, I’ve decided, I will engage. Stop to chat with, or at least greet, everyone. Practice my increasingly passable Ki-Swahili.
And it’s amazing the difference a few words make. Knowing that “poa” is the response to “mambo,” the most common greeting. Even better, greeting with “mambo vipi,” a more colloquial version, rarely used by tourists.
Five basic words of greeting are all it takes to distance myself from foreigners “fresh off the Zanzibar ferry.” The fact that I can hold an introductory conversation and explain that I am here to live and work, all in (broken) Ki-Swahili? Just icing.
Being able to decline, politely, in Ki-Swahili when offered goods and services means I usually only need to say “no” once, rather than six or seven times. Already, I think I have probably avoided hours of pointless sales pitches for jet-skiing, fishing trips and spice tours.
It is truly incredible to observe the difference a word or two makes. Some seem to appreciate my effort, smiling or laughing with good-natured surprise. Others just respond in English, but my language skills are far too rudimentary for me to take offense at that. Overall, the response has convinced me to share my experience here.
To those traveling or living abroad who are tired of being treated as wallets (or breasts) with legs, try learning a few words of the local language. You’ll still stand out (and women, you’ll still be harassed), but you’ll also stand out from other tourists.
You don’t have to be fluent—no one expects you to be—even ten words will often make a huge difference.

Have you ever experienced the difference a word makes? What was it like?
***
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stressful
Africa, Travel Advice

Why Travel Should Be Stressful

The journey from Diani Beach (South Coast, Kenya) to Kilifi (North Coast) by public transport is long, sweaty and chaotic. (Indeed, going just about anywhere in Kenya is all of these things.)

It involves a matatu(bus) to the main road, and another to almost-Mombasa. Each is filled to capacity, quite likely blaring rap music or Kenyan pop, and located only by navigating an insistent throng of taxi drivers, hangers-on of indeterminate employment and buses bound for every direction.

A ferry packed end-to-end crosses into Mombasa proper—a sort-of island linked on most sides by bridges–and then, with luck, a coach bus may be waiting at the other side, saving an extra ride to the station. A man stands at the top of the ramp from the water shouting, “,Malindi-Kilifi-Malindi-Kilifi-Malindi-Kilifi,”without pause. In the crush of the crowd, one could hardly understand him.

And it’s not over yet. The bus will let off in Kilifi Town, a 15+ minute tuk tuk ride from the Creek, and the Distant Relatives Ecolodge.

We made this journey just over a month ago, and I have since settled into the easy tranquility of the lodge, the nearby beach and the comfortable isolation of the place. When I do go into town—relatively laid back when compared to Nairobi—I am thrown off by the sudden return to chaos, stares, noise and confusion.

Thinking back to that trip from Diani, as well as the much longer odyssey from Western Kenya, I recall the sweat trickling down my spine as I sat wedged between two ample-sized women in the back row of a matatu, the weight of my purse on my thighs an added layer of heat. I remember the stillness of the air on the coach bus waiting for traffic to clear, the noise of the speakers just above my head, the inescapable midday sun over the ferry and the coating of grime that covered my skin by the time we reached Kilifi. And that was only a few hours.

But that is, I believe, an essential part of travel.

Comfortably ensconced in the coastal paradise I currently call home, I feel a decided aversion to the unpleasant harassment and disorder of going into town. I contemplate another day of bus journeys, sweat-soaked clothing and dirt-covered hair with reluctance. I am loathe to invite back the arguments and anxiety that naturally accompany reams of buses, unfamiliar routes and missed stops.

But, if I left all that out of the equation, where would the challenge be?

Stress has always, always been an inconsequential—yet, paradoxically, fundamental—footnote to my travels. Bumbling through Italy with my family—utterly lost; wandering the streets of Istanbul with my best friend, utterly lost; scouring Kolkata for a guest house alone, utterly lost. Anxiously running to catch trains; bartering for taxis, tuk tuks, motorcycles, often walking instead in stubborn frustration; searching for addresses, waiting for rides or fruitlessly seeking a quiet corner to regroup—stress and adrenaline saturating my blood.

None of it is fun, and most of it gets pushed to the sidelines of our and rose-toned memories of voyages and adventures. But it is all travel.

That stress means I am stretching the limits of my comfort zone, crossing boundaries and pushing myself to be both stronger and more pliant. No, I don’t like it, and sometimes I allow it to get the best of me, but stress should be a (manageable, eventually forgettable) part of travel.

If travel isn’t just a little stressful at times, and all-out infuriating at others, then what is it? Because if it’s too easy, then it isn’t challenging; and if it isn’t challenging, then I’m not learning or growing as much as I could.

I’ll take sweat, stress and anxious searching over stagnation any day… When’s my next bus ride?

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