THE LABYRINTH

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Pulled the trigger and decided to leave the comfort of our nest in Chefchaouen, Morocco after 10 days. It had been rainy and cold for more than half that time, and slowing way down because of the injury I’d barely seen the light of day for a week.

Our last evening and final attempt to ransack the shops we’d been scouting for must-haves, clouds parted and the sun finally peeked out. Feeling a bit better and determined to enjoy the warmth, I managed to collect a decent variety of Moroccan gear. Included and of total surprise (as a usual non-rug lover), was a fairly large 25 yr. old “Berber” rug – made by the indigenous people of Morocco who live in the Rif or Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert. All other Moroccan people are descendants of Arabs coming from Spain or Saudi Arabia. I think this is why Morocco is so unique, among the many things, is the blending of African and Middle Eastern cultures and Islam which connects them all.

Next up, the Imperial city of Fes. Nothing compares to the narrow passageways, which create the labyrinth of Fes's medina. With walls so high and thick, it almost gives the feeling that nothing exists outside its matrix and in some places the sun can barely creep through. Luckily, our Riad or home was just steps away from one of the liveliest areas of the medina, the "blue gates." Amongst the many cafés and restaurants, a food market showcasing local fare – camel thighs suspended from large hooks, live chickens and pigeons, live turtles, cubed beef chunks suspended in thick fat (a typical breakfast), goat heads, and every part of an animal neatly displayed. Not for the faint of heart, but an authentic version of local delicacies and cuisine. We haven't quite ventured into those realms, just yet.

Ready for a girls night out, Jasmine and I headed in anticipation for the hammam we'd heard so much about. After paying around $1 for entry, we curiously poked our heads through the creaky doors and were instantly hit with the heavy smell of a sauna or sweaty locker room in need of sterilization. Woman sat topless scattered about in a tiled room filled with buckets of water, scrubbing themselves and then each other. We smiled, acknowledging that we had entered into the locals’ domain where there would be no thrills or fluff involved in this experience. Dollar or two more for an olive oil paste and hand scrubber, a nod yes for a 'massage,' we were directed to the steamy room and greeted with inquiring glances. A woman grabbed me by the arm leading towards yet another room, this one thick with heat intensely radiating from the floor and walls. She motioned for us to scrub ourselves and thinking we were left to our own devices, it made sense why it was so cheap, assuming it was self-service - and what a bonding moment for sure.

Water pooled in two large basins, one practically boiling and the other ice cold. We watched as women continually came in and out grabbing buckets of either variety and we tried to follow suit. Just when we thought it time to rinse off and go on our way - maybe try out a more 'spa-esque' hammam - we were greeted again, this time for massage. Seeing your friend getting scrubbed from head to toe with such force it’s hard not to laugh or feel bad for them. Definitely a cross between painful and pleasurable, it was quite an experience and pleased to have happened on the more gritty locals’ version. Mothers delivered the harsh scrubbing while their children squirmed uncomfortably, and babies cried. Feeling for a little girl on the verge of tears, I thought one day she’d deliver the same fierce scrubs to her children.

Slightly elated and a bit refreshed, I joked about wanting a glass of wine. Something we hadn't had for weeks, and for the first time it sounded appealing. On our way home we were ambushed by a guy in bright orange with a huge turban. "Welcome, welcome, come check out our terrace," something everyone with a restaurant says, "We have wine…" And so it began, a glass of wine in a Berber tent on the terrace turned into our most eventful night in Morocco. Live music with drums and a snake charmer flute, dancing, singing, shisha, and more wine. We even got to play dress up, each given Berber outfits in neon colors (think mumu) and scarfs to match, we were quite the spectacle.

Feeling we had barely scratched the surface of Fes' labyrinth and leaving the next day, Jasmine and I set out to see some notable attractions, most importantly the largest leather tannery. Not ten minutes into our mission we walked alongside a young man whose father happened to work at the tannery, and was actually on his way there now. Perfect, because there's no way we could successfully navigate there even with the map. First, he said, we would stop quickly at a Berber house to say hello, that kind of thing. A little confused and not entirely keen on the idea, we stopped in front of what looked like a rug store. Just then a few men ran past holding huge platters of couscous, and it was Friday the day of rest, where traditionally every family eats couscous. Stomachs growling, we both agreed on finding some after our short visit.

Clearly walking into a rug store, we reluctantly entered inside to find several men hovered over a communal platter of couscous surrounded by several other little dishes. Practically forcing us to sit down and eat with them, we awkwardly accepted and picked up a spoon. It's customary in their culture to always offer something, usually it's what they call "Moroccan whiskey" or mint tea with a hefty dose of sugar (also contributing to their notoriously bad teeth). After such hospitality and really delicious food, I felt obligated to ask about one of the many rugs on display, even though I had the scoop already from my previous purchase. "We don't talk about that now, we eat, no discussing business, and we're not leaving until you both finish this entire thing." We did our best, and thinking we could graciously ease our way out of there after tea, the official 'tour' began.

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Several hours and cups of tea later, after seeing every old, distressed, and faded rug they had I fell in love with a couple more pieces and my friend shook hands on some too. Even involved a friend back home in the fun, she picked up two antique stunners as well. Obviously they're professionals and this is what they do but the hard sales process - if you're open to it and like what they’re offering - can be an enjoyable experience. Bargaining is a key element of Moroccan culture, and actually an insult if you don't try. Funny because on many occasions I’ve been called “Berber,” and told I have Berber eyes. After asking around what that really meant, the response was they’re strong and hard bargainers. Well, no wonder I love this place.

Until next time, from the Sahara sand dunes…

After thought: Great and unexpected experiences usually come about by saying “yes.” I think this is the best part of traveling, so many things coming your way that you constantly get to choose yes or no. (Wish I had said ‘no’ to that omelet which I think gave me food poisoning :P)

UPS DOWNS AND ALL AROUND

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17 May : As I write this from a beautiful Moroccan hotel room set in the storybook village of Chefchaouen or “blue city,” drinking mint tea and running a hot bath, I can’t help but focus on the ‘downs.’ It’s been over a week of nagging and at times unbearable pain in my leg and lower back; pain way too familiar has reared its ugly head again.

Before I left in February signs of sciatica started to manifest, partly due to an intense yoga practice and stubbornness about being diligent with self-help techniques to prevent it. Thinking I was free and clear of any recurrences of the back pain that had me bed ridden and on pain pills years ago, carelessness took over in the health department, and I willed myself to do all the physical things I love, in full capacity. Weird because most people do yoga to rid themselves of ailments, but something I’m doing is helping to create them. Nevertheless it’s an injury that lives on after the initial pain gradually slips away and I’ll have to learn to find balance again.

As they say, timing is everything and right now it’s all-wrong. But maybe, it isn’t? Not that there is an ideal timing for anything unpleasant like a back injury that leaves you crawling on the floor to the bathroom, but in a way there is. Having responsibilities of a family or job, things like that. Right now the focus is on getting better, and am trying to look on the bright side. My already impatient self is growing even more intolerant as my symptoms persist – and I’m completely exhausted. Admittedly this is a dramatic version of my current status, which is heightened by the last couple days of a horizontal existence, missed outdoor activities, and lost sleep.

Poor Rama and my friend Jasmine who we’ve recently met up with, now having a gimp on their hands. I’ve had a hard time not thinking ‘why now … not again,’ and feeling guilty for holding them up in a way – not being my usual active and hike-for-hours self. On top of that we’ve landed in a place with beautiful and endless hiking terrain with countless trails leading to majestic waterfalls and vistas. Thankfully it’s a place neither of them wants to leave too quickly, and seem content on hunkering down for a bit.

18 May : Yesterday, I slipped. Not the kind that sends you to the ground in a half second, but the kind that causes your whole body to cease up from the slightest movement to regain stability. It had been raining all day, and with the entire village lined in tiny cobblestones it was a slicker than ice.  I had been feeling a little better that morning and despite the weather, was eager to get outside to feel like a normal human again. The dramatics mentioned earlier are no longer an overstatement. I feel broken in half.

No stranger to foreign doctors offices and communicating through hand gestures; this fiasco is bringing back memories of my countless trips alone to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya for an MRI four years ago. One good thing about healthcare abroad, is the cost. Today’s excursion and homeopathic massage was a whopping $43.

Doctor visit + steroid shot = $15, 4 prescriptions = $18, homeopathy + in room massage = $10.  Majority of the people here speak Spanish on top of French and Arabic, and luckily we had a necessary warm-up in the Dominican Republic and Spain, so carrying on has been fairly effective. Kind of interesting and fun to choose from “hola,” “bonjour,” “salam alaikom, “or a combination of all three in one sentence.

Now, the ‘ups.’ Things that I’m more than thankful for in this not-so-great situation. The moments where you think of nothing else and are grateful for the experience and adventure of it all. Fortunately, there have been many of those in the past 3 ½ months. I acknowledge often how lucky i am for the time and freedom to see the world, something I’ve always wanted to do and am determined to make the best of it. The ways you look back on and remember fondly the people and places, and can laugh at the times that weren’t so enjoyable.  I’m hoping this is a bump in the road, that will soon be a distant memory.

Our incredibly comfortable hotel room complete with a plush Moroccan lounge, has become a healing haven and perfect for hosting “shisha” (hookah) sessions and dinners with our friends we’ve acquired in the week here. A local college student we call “Newman” has been more than helpful, and has taken a liking to our threesome, especially Jasmine. We’ve been welcomed into his home and shared meals, stories, and photo albums with his family. Then there’s Neil, a funny English bloke traveling alone who smokes more hash than I thought humanly possible. Quite a motley crew.

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It’s been an ideal reprieve from our stint in Spain – vibrant nightlife until 3am, bottomless sangria, tapas for every meal, and the consistent moving from city to city. I really love Spain and the warm social nature of the culture, although for many reasons I’m thankful we’ve been sucked into the vortex of bohemian Chefchauen, for rest and recuperation.

Meals now come with a side of anti-inflammatories, a muscle relaxer, and homeopathic remedy. I even dared try the infamous hash this town is known for and constantly trying to sell you. Just small puffs, but enough to bring on contagious laughter and a bit of solace. This is not a regular pastime, as someone who can’t stand (tobacco) smoke or anything related to the feeling of being stoned. But what the hell.

We have found our fun in playing ‘Uno’ on the terrace, enjoying the Muslim prayer call echo throughout the valley, drinking mint tea, and finding street food that we are consistently satisfied with. Not only the taste, variety, and cheap prices - but knowing where to go for the best avocado smoothie, samosa, or a visit to the ‘nut guy’ for the hugest bag of mixed nuts for practically pennies. Going out in seek of all the food assortments is still exciting, but now that I’m succumbed to the hotel room with minimal activity, I get to be on the receiving end of the findings and a play-by-play of the day.

Feels like we’ve been here for longer than a week, people know us on a first name basis and are extremely friendly. I’ll be out hobbling about town, people will stop and say “hammam” and point to their backs. That’s what you need they say - wham bam – wake up tomorrow, you’ll be fixed. A hammam is a Moroccan spa, the likes of a Turkish bath where a very strong man or woman gives a vigorous massage, then tosses hot and cold water on you after scrubbing off couple layers of skin. Think I might skip that for now.

Drinking isn’t technically illegal in Morocco, but being a predominantly Muslim culture it’s frowned upon by locals. As a tourist - or local but discreetly - you can buy beer at bars and some restaurants throughout the country (we’ve heard in the bigger cities it’s much easier to find and accepted), although in Chefchaeun only a a couple establishments hushly sell 8oz. beers and bottles of wine more expensive than a 5-course dinner for two. We’ve taken a liking to the local tea and freshly squeezed orange juice that you can buy on every corner.

Within the “medina” or old city walls, there are no cars so the streets are narrow and wind about lined with shops stuffed in every crevice, miniature doors lead to people’s homes and every bit of the city walls and buildings are painted the most vibrant shades of blue. Reasoning behind the blue came as a surprise, thinking it was more for an aesthetic or higher purpose, but is actually to keep away the mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. It also helps to create a ‘cool’ feeling in the summer heat. Either way it feels like a set for a Disney film, I half expect to see an ice princess emerge behind one of the mystical looking doors.

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I think the term ‘hole-in-the-wall’ was invented here. You’ll see a man tucked in a hole carved out of the concrete, diligently perfecting and debuting his craft; leather, jewelry, rugs, clothing, shoes, etc. The urge to shop is overwhelming and coupled with the ridiculous low prices, I can’t wait to get back out there to buy one of everything and send a huge box home.

Woman from the mountains, or “Berber” culture, sit on the streets selling their hand woven rugs and vibrantly colored straw hats, olives, goat cheese, figs, herbs, and dates. It feels like time hasn’t touched this village, and has been proudly preserved for hundreds of years. I’m secretly hoping to bump into a shaman that has just descended from those mountains, and get cured once and for all.

19 May : All around it’s been an ideal venue for this crucial rest time, surrounded by supportive and caring people to laugh with and keep me positive. In some ways I’ve forgotten about the world outside of this charming village set high in the Moroccan mountains, and am focused on emerging stronger and healthier.

Because without your health, what do you have?

Hoping the healing process will come swiftly, so we can continue writing the next leg of our journey throughout the country. More importantly, I’m determined to hop on a camel and ride into the Sahara desert...

Feeling better already.

After thought: Being here has really inspired travels to other Middle Eastern countries, which until now hadn’t been high on the list. Spending time with locals learning about their culture and hospitality has been a very rich experience, and by far the most rewarding. More reflection on this topic later, as we tackle other cities and destinations. So far we’ve only sampled a small but satisfying dose.

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MY SISTERS WEDDING

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Been awhile since my last post. You’d think with this adopted ‘holiday’ lifestyle I’d be cranking out more updates, pictures, and detailed stories. Primarily for my mom, who really starts to worry if she doesn’t hear from me after about 4 days. It’s a lot better than her not caring, so I’ll take the urgent “where are you and is everything OK ????” emails, any day.

Funny how time really does fly by. How cliché. Of course there’s those moments when I’d love to fast forward time, 16-hour flights, tedious workday stuff, brutal traffic, the usual. While in Cape Town the second time around, I so badly wished for a freeze frame button. This time around with Rama, we quickly put on the tourista hats and wore them out, taking day tours on double decker buses -I made fun of at first- train trips down the coast, and a mountain bike ride through the renowned wine country. With the days packed full busily checking of our list of ‘things we wanted to do,’ I didn’t feel ready as it crept closer to our departure date.

Motivation was my sister’s wedding in Grenada looming on the horizon as the next leg of this journey. I could hardly imagine it. The idea of seeing my family in a tropical location and celebrating her (long awaited) wedding, was a hard concept to wrap my head around. As a family we had never taken a ‘vacation,’ besides our mini-road trips from Illinois to Wisconsin or camping as kids. When I mentioned this to my mom recently, she made a face that basically said, “let’s not go there.” Sore subject maybe… but between her, my sister and I, we’ve had our share of exotic getaways that just somehow never coincided with each other. Maybe we were more of the norm back then, and living in Marin painted an unrealistic picture of the typical family vacation; African safari’s, Hawaii multiple times a year, or sailing in the Mediterranean.

As the days grew closer to leave for the Caribbean, I felt both the rush of excitement and a little nervous for my responsibilities as the Maid of Honor. What I primarily mean - the speech. As mentioned before I have a fear of public speaking, especially where it involves something emotional. When in my early teens at my mom’s wedding, I read a poem during the ceremony and all I remember is crying uncontrollably. This is what I pictured would happen.

After 37 hours of traveling from the southern most tip of Africa to a tiny Caribbean island called Grenada, adrenaline kept me alert for the welcome party I anticipated at the airport. As we trickled out past customs into the night air, the heat hit us hard in the face. Now entering a climate where bathing suits replace underwear and only beach sarongs are tolerable. Seeing my family, freshly sunburned from their first day there, was such a great moment. The 2 ½ months away somehow felt much longer, and we had so much catching up to do I could barely stop talking. As I apologized for my run on sentences, my mom laughed and said I was now around ‘my people’ again, and not to worry.

In the days that followed we spent time at Brett’s parent’s home, a place that has been in conversation for the 9 years my sister has been part of their family. Set in a remote village miles away from the main city and with a stunning ocean view, I was overwhelmed with it’s beauty and serenity. I kept thinking out loud, why have we not been coming here on vacation?! We would cook meals together, sit outside in the warm night air, trek down to the beach, drink coffee on the terrace after a swim in the pool, chop coconuts, and just relax. The days mostly unfolded in this way, aside from the wedding hustle and prep, which my sister and Brett were busy with in the week leading up to the big day.

I woke up one morning and had this huge wave of almost panic, as if I was going to blink and the entire experience would be over -in a flash – much too soon. I wanted so badly to stop time. And several moments throughout the trip I would get this warm feeling of total contentment.

The wedding itself played out in the most perfect way from beginning to end, which was at 3am after we all jumped in the pool. Even though I give my sister a hard time about dating for almost 10 years, and “what’s the point you’re practically married anyway,” I do see the value in having a celebration to honor the union. I now have even more adoration for destination weddings, bringing family and friends together for a time they will hopefully never forget.

Several months leading up to the wedding I worked on putting together a video to play at the reception. Not just your average slideshow, it was to include videos of family members who couldn’t make it, which was all the aunts, uncles, and cousins on our side. A way to ‘virtually’ incorporate them into the experience, as Brett’s entire side of the family would be attending. Last minute, and to avoid the crying uncontrollably scenario, I filmed my speech on the beach. Now she’ll have it forever. It surely was a labor of love, and my end goal was achieved -- have Shannon in tears!

Random travel tip: This may seem obvious, but it’s important to share experiences with family and loved ones outside of daily life, if you are lucky to live close to them. Not that you have to go on an exotic excursion or someone has to have a destination wedding, a road trip to Wisconsin is just fine. Making the effort to create memories in a new place together is muy importante!

SURVIVING SWAZILAND

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Uploading photos one day to Fb I laughed and said to the friends who had adopted me, how about this title for the album, “Surviving Swaziland.” Funny, right? Not so funny apparently. I’ll try to sum up my reasoning for the title and not insult anyone in the process – more so, it was making fun of myself. It has been quite an adjustment to life here, but in the process have learned a lot about how adaptable I really am - or want to be. Where I remember the thrill of taking bucket showers and candle lit nights when the power went out in Kenya, things not being readily accessible like wifi, yoga, or espresso were a challenge. Maybe because I’m spoiled, high maintenance - or both - and after a month in Cape Town where everything is abundant, I admit to a little culture shock. My friend Ginger and her BF graciously cleaned out their storage room and took me in as their first visitor (in 2 years), and I made it my home for a month.  They were quick to notice my addiction to the internet, strong coffee, exercise  -- even describing me as an ‘exercise freak,’ ha! and with food – comments about my ‘expensive healthy bread.’ I would make a day of walking to the internet café an hour away just to get my heart rate up and a proper americano. Couldn’t have been happier during a mountain bike ride through tiny villages into the pitch dark, or on a major bush whack down to a river in flip flops. Doing without certain comforts is a good reminder that traveling will highlight elements of an accustomed lifestyle, and you will of course have to be flexible. But it’s also a good thing not to deny who you are and what makes you happy.

I met two non-smokers my whole time in Swaziland. Even the natural healing crowd were smokers. People light up all day, everywhere. Friends know me as the anti-smoking billboard so naturally people labeled me as such, and attempted to blow their smoke the other way. I felt like the black sheep of a cultural bad habit (maybe how Europe was 5 years ago?) and I realized how it’s much more taboo in the Bay Area to smoke, and am thankful for that. I’m sure people are relieved I’m no longer there waving my hands around and coughing, lol.

Of course the smoking goes tandem with drinking, which was a favorite pastime of sorts. Not much different for many parts of the world (especially small towns) or my own, and for the life of me I couldn’t find a really good strong beer. The variety is limited, 4% lite something or another, or at best Heineken, or their beloved ciders. I wasn't trying to be too much of a snoot, but as a result my tolerance shot through the roof in an attempt to catch an occasional buzz. Never thought little things like a micro brew was something to miss. Food choices were also an adjustment, as the Swazi’s love their meat. All gatherings center round a braai or BBQ, and should you attend prepare to eat piles of any and all kinds of meat. Who knew I'd like spicy beef curled into a sausage snail?

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But hey, guess it’s good to mix things up, let go, and live (differently) for awhile.

It was a bit like my college experience - hanging out a lot with interesting people in a small town, with not much else to do but enjoy the great outdoors and at times with a drink in hand. And so I ultimately felt at home, along with the realization that I’m getting a little too old for some things and am really attached to my kale and down dog :)

T I A

IMG_9424 Road trip. Our first weekend away from Swaziland was to a bustling war torn Portuguese city in Mozambique, called Maputo. A friend of a friend lives there in a big empty house, and was eager to show us the vibrant nightlife – huge Latin salsa dancing scene - that goes into all hours of the night. I was a bit scared to be honest, as Ginger warned we wouldn’t be sleeping at all. Considering my liver was well primed for this getaway, I thought I’d be in good shape to stay up past our usual 9:30pm bedtime. Which, btw, was a welcome change and I liked getting up at the crack of dawn – even if only for the coffee.

All over Africa the locals take taxi’s (think VW size vans) that pile people in for dirt cheap and they drive all over the place – no set times – or pick up locations but routes that go everywhere. Our ride to Maputo on the taxi was around 3 hours, and cost about $9. Ginger and her bf weren’t keen on taking public transport, but twas our only option, and I thought what could go wrong - we take these things all the time? Somehow, everything did 45 mins into the journey. Starting with steam exploding from the engine, the driver dumping cold water on it to cool down, it happening again twice, then leaving us on the side of the road to walk alongs the highway, and then telling us we had to wait for hours until another taxi could pick us up, and nope…we couldn’t get our money back.

In moments like these, our friends would mutter TIA, “this is Africa.” It became a hilarious and poignant way to sum up similar experiences, which happened more often than not.

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Left to our own devices, the 5 of us flagged down a ‘real’ taxi, piled in and headed for the border with a quick stop at a bottle store. Somehow adding a cold beer and drinking it in a car feels slightly rebellious, “yeah, now we’re on vacation.” We were to wait just across the border for our friend to pick us up, his house less than an hour away. Nothing but a couple shacks and one with a bar sign was there, so we happily went inside to grab the classic brew of Mozambique, “2M” pronounced “dosh-em” – giving it more of a flare. Making the best of a not so great situation, we got comfortable in a blown out concrete building next door, and made friends with a homeless guy France, who slept in one of the rooms that actually had a roof. He welcomed us into his ‘living room,’ and told us about his wife and child he had to leave behind to find work here.

Chickens and kids ran around, women cooked and hung laundry, and the men sat around grabbing us beers and drinking with us. Somehow it wasn’t clear until hours into our excursion that the friend and ride was at work on a Saturday, and wouldn’t be able to pick us up until later - much later.  By the time we heard the loud bass from his car bumping down the street, we had made solid new friends and they joined us in cheering his name as he rolled up. He had no idea the condition we were in, but after a day of dosh-em in the Mozambique heat in a decrepit concrete structure, it was probably obvious. The sun was setting as we drove towards our final destination, and only 1 of us stayed up past 10pm.

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Our 3-hour tour turned into 10-hour fiasco, but made the best of it and in the moment, it surely felt like an adventure. Making up for our non-existent night out, the next day we headed to the famous fish market – pick what’s caught fresh that morning and they cook it. Several hours and 2M’s later we parked at the beachfront and did what the locals do, sit on the ledge, dance, and buy cold drinks from woman with coolers.  I felt satisfied with our mini-Moz experience in the big city, but still crave the picturesque white sand beaches its known for. Will have to save that for next time, although I was happy Rama was able to get a hint of other parts of Africa and to have a real TIA experience.

JET

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After many Skpye’s and emails with Rama while in Cape Town, he made the spontaneous decision to meet me in Africa towards the end of my stay here. His 1st time and my 3rd on the continent, I was insistent that he not pass up South Africa, as it was something not to miss. Cape Town is a very cool and sexy city with much to offer – feels like a mix of San Francisco, Hawaii, and Europe. I’m seriously considering making it my home for at least 6 months – somewhere down the line. People would ask “first time to Cape Town?” After my enthusiastic, “yes love it and want to stay!” they remind me of my unoriginality and that foreigners in droves never leave. My friend who recently married a ‘Capetonian’ describes it as “quasi Africa / Mediterranean or hipster Africa.” Well said.

Two months after my departure from the states, Rama ventured out and headed towards Swaziland for over a week, and then we’d jet back to Cape Town for a bit. He also made the entirely rash decision to pack everything up like I had. Save money on rent and throw responsibilities to the wind, aha! It sure does feel good.

Excitement was also filled with some nervous feelings about his arrival. The idea that he was changing his world around back home to come along for a mostly unplanned itinerary added an ounce of responsibility on my end. Our original ‘plan’ was to meet up at my sisters wedding in Grenada mid-April for 3 weeks, maybe jet to Cuba real quick and then I’d head to Madrid. No plane tickets or solid plans were in place before I left - my stubbornness and not wanting to commit to anything ahead of time kicked in. Wanted to get that sense of somewhat solo-travel, and as a result, have liked the independence. Either way I was looking forward to him joining forces as a ‘quasi-Swazi.’

We threw him right into the mix, and somehow managed to cram all of the ‘fun schtuff’ into the week he was in Swaziland; a weekend in Mozambique, 2-day safari in Kruger National Park, and a night at the Rock Lodge with some interesting folks. Rock Lodge is basically a huge tree house set amongst rocks with open-air bunks, kitchen, and bathrooms. Pic below will gives an idea of the serene and remoteness of the place. OM….

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ROAD TO SWAZILAND

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Swaziland: population 1 million, sits in the northeast corner of South Africa, smaller than New Jersey, the king has 14 wives, and boasts the highest rates of HIV in the world. It’s like a rural small town – that is a country. The 4-hour drive from Johannesburg, South Africa looked at first like anywhere-mid-west USA. Flat with endless cornfields. Crossing the Swazi border things transformed into a beautiful painting – rolling lush green mountains with huge trees and an epic lightening storm! Trying to capture it with my iPhone was harder than I thought, and surely the other passengers were thinking, “Geez this white chick is acting like she’s never seen a rain storm before.”

I’m here visiting Ginger. We met in 2009 volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya. She lived in Chicago and we each traded visits to our ‘hometowns.’ Both Mid-westerners at heart and always drawn to Africa, we were fast friends.  She joined the Peace Corp shortly after returning home to her life in a cubicle, and was placed in Swaziland the following year. After a year into her placement she “field separated” after choosing a permanent life here outside the Peace Corp. A very wise decision on her part she says, but a very difficult one too.  And somewhere along the way she fell fast in love and is now engaged to a wonderful Swazi guy. They plan to marry next summer. Wedding fever I tell you!

You can read Ginger's blog here : http://gingerinswaziland.wordpress.com/

*I should note that she would not deter anyone from joining the Peace Corp, and definitely recommends it – especially if you really want to get to ‘know yourself.’

Here for a month, I told her keep me busy and I’ll help out wherever possible. This led to a little video-editing job for an NGO she does marketing consulting for. She also does freelance graphic design for several local business (whom desperately need her services), teaches art, mosaics tables, and other random crafty stuff.  So I’ve basically been her shadow to work wherever that may be, and am making a slow start at the video thing. Somehow I’ve made myself busy with little personal projects that consume lots of computer time. Just getting wifi here is a mission in itself and is not cheap. It is nice to be more conscious of time spent mindlessly online, as I usually have over 10 browsers open … so dangerous for my ADD.

Swaziland is a massive playground for the outdoor enthusiast like myself. We’ve done a a couple 4-hour hikes and they all offer up 360 views that don’t disappoint, rolling hills and pastures, wildflowers, neon colored rocks and caves, and the occasional (very) rural homestead. I’ve made comparisons to the likes of Hawaii, Thailand, and northern California. But it’s a unique place, and home to a surprising number of expats (lots of Americans). People here take great Swazi pride, and those that have adopted it as their home speak of the ‘pull’ it had on them.

Just like anywhere, it’s about the people and the connections you make. But most importantly as Ginger pointed out, "I like who I am here." You never know where you’ll end up calling home.

WEDDING IN A WEEK

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In the airport on the way to S.Africa, my friend who was getting married got a surprising message from his soon-to-be fiancé. She didn’t want to plan a wedding in the 3 weeks he was there - it felt rushed and not enough time to get things in order. Technically they weren’t engaged yet so he had the ring, and wanted a proper proposal. The wedding was to follow accordingly.

She comes from a Muslim family that is heavily involved in a large Muslim community in Cape Town that his dad was also a member of. They both had Islam as a backdrop of their upbringings, although they are more Muslim-light. Each have children and will be blending families in the states in a couple months.

When in London my friend had scoped out a fabric store on Portobello Road in hopes of finding something to make a suit for tailoring in Cape Town. We found a quaint family owned shop, and in no time he found $100 worth of fine grey fabric that would make a slick looking suit.  In the end he ended up with a very well made and fitting suit, all for about $200 – along with a sweet story of how it all came to be.

The days that followed were filled with anticipation about the proposal. When would he do it, and where? Had the ring, check.  Suit fabric ready for the tailor, got it. All the other wedding day elements; venue, guest list, food, officiate, glassware & tables, decorations, etc. were all unknown. Whether the wedding was actually happening was up in the air the first week we were there.

With Valentines Day quickly approaching, my friend had a plan for the proposal. To avoid the crowds and cliché, he booked a lunch date at a nice restaurant and winery on Feb 13th. I was so excited for them, and was fun to have a secret. They came back hour’s later, champagne and wine tipsy, with huge grins and a beautiful moonstone rose-gold ring on her left finger. “She said yes,” he beamed.

The ring put wedding plans into motion. Her sister, brothers, sister-in-law, and a very high-energy mother stepped up and began planning for the festivities. The date was set for 10 days later, on a Sunday. It was a mid-day wedding held at a very large house at someone in the communities who has hosted the likes of 16 weddings over the years. After seeing the house I can see why, there’s so much outdoor space it would be a waste not to utilize it in that way.

The week to come was busy for the bride and her family for the most part; finding a wedding dress (!!) and the shoes. Food - what to cook, who would cook it, and the cost of it all. How many guests? All these decisions were made swiftly, and her sister offered to cook everything for around 70 guests. Fish would be the main course.

All this wedding planning and frenzy left me on my own, which allowed for solo exploration – something I really starting enjoying. Like I said before, days wandering alone – eating out, all didn’t appeal so much. I always believed it was more fun to have a partner in crime than go it solo while traveling. I’ve found both to be true, and a lot of the reasoning behind going on this long trip was to get that ‘time alone’ thing. What people who’d all traveled alone were raving about, I was curious. I wasn’t completely alone of course, we were had a place together, but it was fun to come back after being out and share our days.

Sunday morning came, and the wedding ceremony or “Nikah” was set for noon.  I went early to where the bride was getting ready to snap pictures. She was surprisingly calm, and the energy in the house was fairly laid back. She looked stunning in her 1930’s wedding dress found in a vintage shop that fit both her figure and style.

A traditional Muslim wedding ceremony consists of both parties signing a contract and a meal to follow. The bride sits on one side of the room and the groom faces her, a short sermon and reading from the Koran, an agreement to the “dowry” or dollar amount the groom agrees to pay the bride, signatures from male witnesses, and you’re pronounced husband and wife.

The wedding was lovely. Tables were set on the well-manicured lawn under huge trees and decorated with wildflowers. Men sat at separate tables, woman covered their heads with brightly colored scarfs. Funny how men and woman naturally tend to band together anyway in social situations, and it was nice to have ‘girl talk’ with the elders and other female members of the community.  The food was incredible, definitely up there with some of the best food I’ve had at a wedding. Her sister cooked, her best friend and nephews did the serving, and the dishes, tables, cups, and cutlery were rented. I did my part and cleaned for hours afterwards - quite an undertaking but fun to spend time with the girls.

Maybe planning a wedding in a really short amount of time is the best way. This experience proved this point, and in the end hopefully it turns out better than you could of imagined.

JET LAG

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All the energy to get somewhere – noted in previous posts - can muddle arriving and actually being in the destination. Getting to the bottom tip of Africa is no small feat via air travel, and the 10-hour time difference kicks the acclimation phase into high gear. Somewhere along the way, maybe during our 10-hour layover running around London in the frigid rain, I caught a nasty cold. The never-ending headache, congestion and stuffiness, I was all messed up and sleeping during the day and wired at night. My friend who was getting married and I, booked a place on airbnb (www.airbnb.com), the best way to travel – you rent out people’s rooms or entire houses ranging from $5-$10,000/night all over the world. My friend had been to Cape Town several times because his dad lived there for over 10 years, so he was connected into a community and had friends. Nice to have someone who had been there and also good when booking a place in an unknown spread-out city like Cape Town. But also made me lazy about researching the touristy stuff  and must see attractions, etc. I was totally clueless about what to expect, except for the couple photos on airbnb when looking at places to stay. I was pleasantly surprised and the views were so incredibly beautiful.

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We booked a really cute cottage in Costantia, the wine country, which was a 20-minute walk to anything and a 15 + min drive to get downtown. Without a car we were at the mercy of his friends to fetch us, or these minivan type buses that go everywhere for cheap, or walking. We had only booked a week luckily, because by the time the week was up I was ready to be in civilization again. It was in a beautiful safe neighborhood and the Australian family in the main house, who were new to Cape Town, were awesome. One night they invited us to dinner and we solved the world’s problems over a bottle of wine.

Friends would email, “I bet you’re having a blast!,” which sure there were very fun moments being in a new place and in warm weather, etc. but feeling normal takes awhile. I sometimes forget this about traveling in general, like you just step off the plane and start having the ‘best time ever.’ It was that way on my senior trip to Mexico, but can’t remember any other time when it was a pretty constant “blast.” So, I calculate it takes at least a week to get acclimated and back to feeling somewhat like yourself again.

Random Travel tip: If you’re visiting Cape Town, book a car or stay close to the beaches (Sea Point, Green Point, Camps Bay, or downtown) You’ll have easy access to cheap mini-buses and trains for getting around.

VISIT CAPE TOWN!!!!

BLURRY VISION AHEAD

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In addition to Dream Boards, I’m a psychic connoisseur. I've been to my fair share of (clairvoyants, fortune tellers, intuitive’s) over the years, and somehow managed to visit 3 in 2012. For some reason throwing caution to wind, and trusting my inner self and the world around me, is not a strong point sometimes. I’d gone through quite a lot of changes last year; a major breakup, full time job (trust me this was a big change), then a lay off, another new job, and a new relationship. Oh, and I moved into my mom’s spare bedroom – slept on a pullout couch, and stayed for over 6 months. (Btw, thanks mom!) Not exactly how I would have pictured my life at 33, but whatever. I saw it as a stepping-stone, just took a little while to get my footing.

After a less than positive review of my life, a psychic named 'Rachel' said, I was carrying “bad energy” and desperately needed to meditate (ugh, heard this one before!), no use discussing my current relationship because I needed to work on my self, my ex was indeed over me and would marry his GF, no travel plans for AWHILE, and “sorry honey I tell it like I see it.”

Then I turned to a dear friend - an intuitive counselor, and was lucky enough to have a reading with her just a few months ago. She gave big thumbs up to the travel plans and so here I am, just needed a little push and validation.

If you want it told to you straight, call the number pictured above and ask for Rachel.

GO IT SOLO

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Couldn’t totally grasp the idea of not having a plan while away, or upon return, or even when to come back at all, and not having a steady travel companion with whom to share the adventure. Because why would 'I' want to be all-alone? My genetic make-up thrives on being around and connecting with other people, constantly. This means at times - multiple coffee dates and walks with friends, long phone conversations, and not a lot of alone time on a daily basis.

I would see people traveling solo, sitting alone out to dinner, or at café reading a book, and think – that is not for me, how boring. But when I started talking to people who’d done extended travel, or even little getaways by their lonesome, everyone and I mean ALL of the people I’ve talked to rave about and relished in their solo missions. And of course, they would absolutely recommend it. Now, maybe in hindsight as most things are, for me anyway, seem brighter now than they really were. Maybe not, maybe it’s great. But I have to remember it’s different for everyone, and not do it just because I was somehow now put up to the “challenge.” Who really cares anyway? (Obviously I do care what people think, maybe a little too much, and I’m working on that.)

All things aside, I thought why not try it; get out of my comfort zone. Which I do try as often as possible and encourage others too as well  - sometimes in my own unique nagging sort of way. My sister can attest to that. For starters even the little things - like no laptop in bed, not texting all the time or being glued to the phone in general (now I’m obsessed with Skype), or eating the same food, can all make a difference and shake up the monotony of your life. I’d like to achieve the notion of ‘doing something that scares you everyday.’ In that case I’d just have to public speak in front of a huge crowd once a day. Yikes.

Trying to find “it” – that moment when you’re thinking of nothing else BUT the moment you’re in, not wanting to be anywhere else. Rare, and seems if I look for it – it may show up as inauthentic.

Go figure, my first solid day solo on the trip I was inspired to begin writing this blog.

PREPARE TO LAUNCH - RESOURCES AND INSPO

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Broke my lease 9 months early, packed all the crap that would fit into a 5 x 5 storage unit, got rid of the rest, and refurnished my mom’s house with the big stuff (again, thanks mom!) She was in need of a ‘shabby chic’ makeover, anyway.

Cancelled my health care, yoga membership, put my cell phone on a ‘temporary rate suspension,’ bought a very small and expensive carry on bag (Thule roller w/ 15” laptop bag + backpack feature), and insured everything I was bringing. Sounds simple when you wrap it up in one sentence, but it was months of prep.

RTW Tickets and travel Guru’s:

Rewind a couple months. For weeks I scoured the internet for RTW (Round the World) ticket companies, travel advice, and just about any blog written by someone who had ditched their normal lives to embark on an adventure elsewhere. For example, a family of 4 took a 2-year trip starting at the tip of Alaska and cycled all the way down to the tip of Argentina. Kids in tow, mom and dad homeschooling them along the way. Stories like this got me hooked. Read their blog here: http://familyonbikes.org/blog/about-2/about/

One of the big guns in extended travel is Tim Ferriss, who has traveled around the world for 3 years. He hit fame by writing the bestseller, “4 hour work week,” and has since published several others ("The 4 hour chef," "The 4 hour body"). Through his blog I came across Chris Guillebeau, who’s goal is to visit every country (190 of them) by the time he’s 35 –  last time I checked, he’s got like 2 countries to go and hasn't turned 35 yet. His blog is GREAT and a wealth of travel and life tips – a lot about how to create change. We could all use a little encouragement and framework on how to stop wishing for the “one day when”...and start doing today.

Tim Ferriss' blog with the post written by Chris Guillebeau on RTW travel : http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/10/08/round-the-world-plane-ticket/

In a forum on Chris’s blog, someone mentioned  “AirTreks” as a good option for buying RTW tickets. Located in SF, I checked them out. Turned out to be such a good decision because the guy on the phone - Justin- knew his way around the world. Interested in getting to the Canary Islands via Morocco? Take a ferry from Spain, it’s easy from here … or a flight from _____ makes more sense. The little things that a real travel pro should know. Because honestly, I was thinking too big before taking the plunge and buying a ticket – Justin talked me into buying the first half, and then figuring out the rest while in transit. At AirTreks you have a personal travel specialist with you along the way. I needed some hand holding for sure. (www.airtreks.com)

*When you buy a RTW ticket you have to make all of your travel dates and destinations ahead of time. Any changes you make or missed flights, the airline charges a decent change fee + any fair increases. My dates were somewhat mapped out because of the set-in-stone-wedding-dates, but with a huge gap in time between the April wedding and the Sept in Italy wedding, my head was spinning with possibilities. Justin suggested a 1 way ticket to Spain and go from there. That’s where it stands now.

Other sage travel advice came from a co-worker in his late 50’s who set out to travel for 1 year when he was about 30 and ended up on a 5-year journey around the world. Advice he passed along was to make a list of every place you want to visit and the length of time you’d like to spend there. Multiply by 2.

Another must-read, "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel," by travel writer Rolf Potts. http://www.vagabonding.net/

It’s a quick easy read on traveling in general, and how to make it a lifestyle, not just a 10-day holiday maybe once a year. We share several of the same beliefs and ideals on traveling; getting out of your comfort zone and interacting with the different cultures you come across, be open to possibilities around you, and basically – simplify your life so that you can have freedoms to explore the world. Traveling with kids, no problem. Don’t have the budget for extended travel, no biggie you can do it cheap. If you want it - do it now - and stop making excuses. My belief as well, if it’s your desire to travel for any reason or length of time – start making real moves and decisions that will get you on that path.  Priorities will always make their way to the top, so start by making them as important as paying off that high interest credit card or going grocery shopping.

The picture above is a map I hung up in my studio months before leaving. I really needed a geography lesson and this huge map definitely helped. It also became a great conversation piece. I learned a lot about the many places people had traveled to or lived around the world.

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vagabonding

'GIVE BLISS A CHANCE'

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2010 dream board

This trip has been brought on - in part - and in my opinion, by making Dream Boards (a collage of images and words that represent your wants and dreams in the future.) I would like to consider myself somewhat of frequent 'dream boarder,' and believe that by taking thoughts, wants, and dreams out of the basement of your subconscious and cutting them out of a glossy magazine, they can and will one day manifest. Again, most of what has come true are the places I’ve cut out and glued to a piece of cardboard. Years ago I came across a notebook that coincided with a book I had read called “I am Rich Beyond my Wildest Dreams”(think The Secret type thing) The book suggested writing all the things you want to create in your life on paper, and in great detail. This was fun, I was around 24 with lofty ambitions. So I had filled up 2 notebooks of  “stuff,” down to the color of my walls in my ‘dream apartment’ and put it away. Come to find it years later, and there, on the list of places I had wanted to visit, was almost every country I had been to (still some left on this list, of course) While writing those notebooks in 2004 I hadn’t traveled anywhere, besides Mexico which doesn’t totally count.

I have a hard time visiting amazing places, because I start to obsess about living there. How would I make it work, and what would I do? Go it alone, start something new, or seek out a cool company and apply? Then the fears arise, no really, what would I do? The should’s and shouldn’ts, the why’s and where’s all show their face and I am left with a “someday” approach. Or, maybe I’ll find something better, or I’ll just move somewhere different when I get back to the Bay Area. Yes, that's the solution. On that note, I recently calculated, moving 21 times since I left for college at 18 yrs old. Makes me exhausted just thinking about it!

Now working on manifesting my DREAM JOB...which involves writing and working from my laptop - anywhere in the world. As I continue to consume other people’s advice, experiences, and philosophies on creating and fulfilling your dreams, seems like getting lost and not having a direction may one day lead you there. I’ll give that a whirl and get back to you.

Great quote I remind myself of often: “wherever you go, there you are.”

3 WEDDINGS - 3 CONTINENTS - 1 YEAR

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It all happened so fast. Then - now. I see life as a timeline, and sometimes write it out as such. What I want to create in the future set out as certain dates and time-frames (“Jan ’12 land this ___ job, have a baby, buy a house, travel here, etc.) As well what I’ve already accomplished (a life coach made me do that part awhile back). Anyway, it’s November 2012 and I’m working as a video producer for an educational media start-up that I like, and am actually extending my ‘time-frame’ for the long haul with this company. Start-up scenario – work hard underpaid, and sell in a year or two kind of thing – we all get... rich. The scenario for 2013’s timeline looked a little like this, as the wedding invitations came trickling in.

Feb. 24th Cape Town, S.A.---> April 20th Caribbean (sisters)---> Sept 20th Puglia, Italy.

At first it was a “yeah, I’d love to go to South Africa! But there’s no way – I have a full-time job. Had to pick and choose. Obviously I have to go to my sis's wedding, and then the wedding in Italy - I was determined to make that one happen somehow. It was looking like a very expensive year of destination weddings.

I'm on the phone with my boss, and something like “financially prepare to not have work at the end of this month.” Nothing personal, it’s the nature of a start-up and waiting on investor money kind of thing. I mentally start preparing. More so I shut down, fight back the tears, half participating in the conversation – only hearing “you’re getting laid off, AGAIN, what’s wrong with you?” – in my head.

Partly knew it may come to an end within the year depending on funding, but rejection never feels good, and this reopened the sting of another lay off (albeit a welcome one) earlier in the year.

Technically, for years I have put money aside for that rainy day distant dream of extended foreign travels. Or admittedly, by not fully committing to a job – but relishing in the “free” in freelance work. If I were allotted the American average of 2 weeks yearly vacation, it would equate to entering the dredges of prison. Sounds rather spoiled, I know. But ultimately I'd love to combine the two, work + travel. Traveling with a purpose is something I wholeheartedly believe in.

Somewhere I've heard or just put together, what you have in your subconscious mind will eventually play itself out? Perhaps applied to the more darker sides of ourselves, but nonetheless I am seeing this to be true. So easy sometimes too, and it gets validated in regards to traveling. An idea for a destination pops up or sits at the top of my list, and magically I’m there at some point. No real plan, not even significant research beforehand (more out of laziness, I think) but somehow it eventually happens. Just like that. Now, there are several places I still want to go of course, and feel I’ve barely made a dent, but know deep down it’ll happen if I truly want it to.

So that brings me to today, sitting in a lofty apartment in majestic Cape Town, South Africa. "The Mother City."