How can I possibly begin to tell you what it’s like to feel the entire globe united under one passion?! Soccer/football, whatever your chosen terminology may be, is a sport that truly binds nations together for a common goal: winning the game. Countries from all over the world came together in South Africa for an event that changed the history of FIFA. Africa was finally able to host a Cup, which played out most gracefully and I am one of the luckiest people alive to have been able to experience that (I won’t even deny it).
We spent six weeks in Southern Africa, circling the country twice, attending the multiple matches for which were fortunate to have had tickets (some better than others – everything from nosebleed to second row, all equally epic). Multiple safaris, a world-famous surfing competition, long scenic drives, wine tastings, site seeing, seal-watching, hostel beer-drinking, historical pit stops, house-stays on game reserves, and spirit induced sport gatherings in various cities were some of the incredible things we were able to experience. To be honest, chasing penguins was probably the best.
One of my favorite days in South Africa was one that included a visit to Robben Island, a place where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life serving a sentence that later represented his fight against apartheid. If you ever travel to South Africa, be sure to take a trip through its past. The narrative is surreal and the fight against racial oppression is evident in the country’s spirit. Still with some slight separation, the country continues to strengthen itself under a more united flag and a promise of following Mandela’s most important philosophy…
Ubuntu: I am because we are.
I was only in Mozambique for a few days, but it was eventful enough for a month's excursion. One of the most notable things that I remember about Mozambique was definitely the moon-sized craters that defined the dusty roads and "highways." There was nothing fast about the roadways in Mozambique. A typical two-hour ride took up to six hours to complete with necessary weaving to avoid hitting gaggles of kids, getting a flat tire, trucks loaded with dozens of workers, and generally just not falling into the massive sink hole looking obstacles.
Plus, it doesn't help when you and your boyfriend at the time get "T.D." (Traveler’s Diarrhea) and have to stop every 15 minutes for emergency bathroom breaks. That's always a great source of entertainment for basket carrying, baby-donned passersby. Unfortunately, the cause of our explosive runs (Sorry for the explicit details, but it usually happens when you travel to remote places -- the more comfortable you are with talking about it, the easier it is to handle) was an amazing dish called "bunny chow." No, there are no real bunnies included, but it is a fantastic concept that some westernized cafes have caught onto.
This simple, yet inventive dish makes stew eating that much better simply because it’s a bread bowl filled with a chicken, fish, or mutton surprise. The chef (usually a loud African woman singing behind a curtain) takes a rectangular loaf of bread, cuts it in half, and carves out the inside. S/he pours in a previously prepared stew and puts the end of the bread bowl back on. You get a little packaged meal that is 100% edible. We happily ate this unique dish as we watched The Karate Kid on a discolored TV lodged between the window and the wall of a little shack on the side of a road.
Later that night we watched the World Cup Quarter Final game in the picnic area of our hostel, cheering and fully unprepared for the horror that was yet to come. The middle of the night, it hits. The bunny chow has come back to say hello and not with a pleasant or welcomed arrival. I’ll leave out the crude details, but I’ll have you know I will never travel without Ciprofloxacin ever again. My boyfriend and I had to take shifts in the bathroom and alternated turns retrieving water to maintain what hydration we had left. Knowing we had a long journey of potholes and crazy driving the next day didn’t help, but looking back, it was quite the adventure. You can’t really travel to Africa and not expect to get the shi….sick at least once.
I’ll stop harping about how ill we got for a minute and describe what a beautiful place Tofu Beach was. The sunset was stunning, the people around town were vibrant, the shack structures were simple, and the kids were clever and crafty. One boy sat with me on the beach and made me a beaded headband as my boyfriend surfed the waves at dusk. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of jewelry I’ve ever picked up in my travels to this day. I wish I spoke Portuguese or we could’ve had an actual conversation without miming, but it was fun sitting together just co-existing even though we knew not one word of the other’s tongue. Oh, wait I knew how to say “Thank you” -- one of the most important phrases, I believe, one must learn in another language when traveling anywhere.
We made it back to South Africa alive, though barely smiling. I remember literally getting out of the car and kissing the ground once we crossed the border and pulled onto a paved road. You’d think I just landed from the moon and was happy to be back on Earth. It’s so funny the things you take for granted on a regular basis and recognize the reality that the people of Mozambique don’t really seem to mind the extra hassle of a Swiss cheese road. I’m really glad we took the mini excursion out of South Africa, especially because I look back on it now and laugh just like the bunny chow laughed at us for 24 dreadful hours. I’ll never look at bread bowls the same.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer? For us Americans, it’s a bold endeavor that only a small percentage of our population takes on. Twenty-seven intense months of living in a rural community, contributing to the well-being & efficacy of local systems. I considered doing the Peace Corps back in the day, but didn’t have the guts to follow through.
Fortunately, I have some remarkable friends that served in some cool ass places, one being the enclave of Lesotho. Meg, an old college friend, served her Peace Corps assignment in a small village outside of Maseru, Lesotho, which we were able to visit during our time in Southern Africa. She gave us a true “Rondavel” experience – living a simple life in a cute, round African hut. We learned a little Xhosa – a clicking language of which Meg can actually speak an entire sentence...#impressed.
Lesotho is very poor and impoverished, but has a strong farming system that teaches kids at a young age how to make the best use of their land. Many boys leave school, a controversial occurrence, to become cattle & sheepherders. The girls are expected to continue with their education, leading many to end up in government positions, leaving most of the men behind.
Lesotho differs greatly from its surrounding nation, South Africa, even though it is so close in proximity. When spending the day hanging out with locals in a taxi rank is an acceptable and common activity, you know you’re in Lesotho. We had a blast playing cards, drinking local beer, and laughing with the guys as they told stories and waited to give people rides – a normal weekend pastime for PCVs.
We made several friends on our journeys in and out of Lesotho; some people whose stories we will never forget. All were welcoming, happy, and appreciative that we were so eager to learn about them and their country. I don't know as much as there is to know about Lesotho, but living a week in rural Africa is certainly worth experiencing at least once in your life.
Dichotomy, in my opinion, is the epitome of Thailand. From the first day I arrived with my study abroad group in 2008 to the post-travel opinions I hear people express about their experience in the country, there is so much polarity.
We arrived as spoiled, naïve college students ready for a crazy, exotic adventure and were greeted with a few eye-opening scenes that shoved humility right down our throats. I’ll never forget the orientation tour of our Bangkok neighborhood. A man inching along the sidewalk pushing a cup with his nose because he had no arms and legs was just a few feet from us. I’m sure we all glared for a moment too long just as we were standing outside one of Bangkok’s nicest movie theatres – one that had Lazy Boys for seats and a button you’d push if you wanted a server-delivered cocktail right to your recliner.
As you settle into learning about Thailand’s culture, again, the dichotomy smacks you right in the face. You see monks wearing saffron robes gliding down the street in attention grabbing groups. You get closer and notice they’re all looking at their smart-phones or even taking photos. They’re not wearing shoes, but they’re getting good “selfies.”
When people travel to Bangkok, I only ever hear a division in opinion: “I absolutely hated Bangkok” or “Bangkok is the craziest, coolest city. I’m in love with its madness.” Something along those lines. It’s always been one way or the other.
Haggling, speaking/learning Thai, architecture, Buddhist practice, ordering food (trying absolutely insane options - like highlighter-pink sausages or fried bugs), getting or giving directions… I could tell you a story about each element of Thailand, but for each experience there seemed to be an equal & opposite experience to balance it out. Thailand keeps you on your toes, especially when you least expect it. To this day, it is my favorite country in the world.
Indonesia is, without a doubt, a place I will travel to again. Although I was there for almost two weeks, I felt like there was so much we missed. I mean, it is made up of a zillion islands. One of my best friends, Nick, planned an amazing itinerary for our group. He put his heart and soul into planning the most vital details to make a comprehensive experience for our time there. He’s definitely still a little salty about it, but we didn’t even remotely follow his itinerary after about day three. It wasn’t because of anything on him, but we just ended up having too much fun in certain places and had a hard time pulling ourselves away/moving on.
It all started like this…On our way out of Jakarta (my least favorite city of anywhere I’ve ever been) we jumped on a bus towards the region with easy access to Krakatoa/Krakatau, a volcano Nick had adamantly wanted us to visit. During the bus ride, we met a quirky man who invited us to stay in his almost-finished, new “hotel.” He promised he would provide a boat ride to the volcano, breakfast, lunch, and accommodation for a good price. I still don’t think any of us know if he ripped us off or if it was a good deal, but it was an epic experience.
The hotel was definitely not finished, but it was a place to stay. Plus, the geckos running around everywhere added some charm. The small boating town, Labuan*, had a population that had likely never seen white people before. We felt like celebrities doing something as simple as walking to find an ATM. The food we tried along the way was brighter than highlighters, but still managed to taste good. And none of us got sick from it, so that’s a win.
We all woke up bright and early for our boat ride to the infamous volcano that destroyed a massive part of Indonesia and killed ****. The three-hour ride in the unforgiving sun was absolutely worth it. The volcano was actually spewing black smoke from the top as we approached the island. There were only two other people on the island, but we jumped off the boat onto the black sand and had our very own volcanic adventure. No tourist lines, no ticket booths, no precautionary advice on posted signs or a first aid tent were anywhere in sight. There was, however, a bathroom built amongst the palm trees at the base of the trail.
We climbed as high as our boat-driving tour guides allowed us to go, but the view from the top was nothing short of heaven. It looked like real life “Never Neverland*” from Peter Pan. Amazing, amazing, amazing. We were so lucky to have had such a perfect experience that day.
Fast forward, we essentially spent the rest of our time in “Indo” partying in Bali, playing with monkeys in Ubud, and learning to surf in Kuta. Cliché, but unforgettable. We had a blast. Like I said, I’ll definitely be going back. There are so many other islands I’d love to explore. Plus, I owe it to Nick to finish that itinerary.
I sort of feel bad for Singapore. I spent only two days there and got a very limited, sterile impression that has negatively perpetuated over time. Each time I talk about my time in Singapore (which really I don’t even feel I deserve to do after 48 wee hours), my experience seems to worsen. It’s not really Singapore’s fault that my friends and I missed our flight to Bali. And it’s through no blame of Singapore that its culture comes off as a blend of several other Asian cultures without its own emerged traditions. Lastly, there’s no logical reason to blame Singapore for being so clean and as I mentioned earlier, sterile. If anything, that’s a highly desired quality for a city, isn’t it?
Frankly, Singapore is probably an awesome city. My view of the place just happened to be tainted by previously explored, more exciting, diverse metropolises with their own culture-centric identity. I’ve spoken with tons of people about Singapore, possibly giving off the “I don’t really want to talk about my ex-boyfriend right now, but since we’re on the subject lets just talk smack for a while” type of vibe, but realizing more often than not that it's actually got a lot to offer.
I’ve met people who rant and rave about this country-city. There’s really nowhere like it, even if it is a melting pot of Asia’s finest attributes. It’s a place where people come for tons of business reasons, excellent food, and beautiful skyscrapers – if that’s what you’re into. The one cool thing that I actively give props to Singapore is the amazing ice-cream sandwiches sold on the street. Literally, a sandwich (with bread) and ice-cream in between. It had me cracking up like Amelia Bedelia had a literal influence on the literal delivery of this dish (she comes from a kids book that emphasizes her literal interpretation of everything).
Anyways, Singapore will definitely get another visit from me seeing as one of those fountains in the local mall contains a coin with a special wish attached that holds the weight of allowing me to keep traveling the world forever. No pressure or anything, Singapore. Don’t worry; you’ve done well so far. I’m one lucky globetrotting girl.
Malaysia is probably one of the most stunning countries in Asia. From the strawberry fields (yeah, who knew there was an abundance of strawberries in Malaysia!? I sure didn’t…) to the tea plantations, Chinese influenced Operas, massive mountains with breathtaking summit views, and incredibly vibrant wildlife.
We spent about two weeks in Malaysia, our time evenly split between the peninsular side and the Borneo side. Each half of the trip was very different, yet equally as adventurous as the other. The first half was more group-oriented: tours, day trips, city walks. The second half was just my college roommate, Chelsea, and I getting ourselves into some absurdly unforgettable situations.
Here’s my favorite story of the entire trip. Chelsea and I were in Georgetown, Panang. We didn’t know until after we left the city that it’s actually one of the more dangerous places in the country. The two of us check into our hostel (I think we were the only guests) and walk to a nearby 7-11 to find some dinner. We were exhausted, didn’t speak the local language, and just wanted to get a snack before we hit the hay. As we’re walking down the street, a man outside murmurs something to us about yoga. We pay no mind to him until our walk back. He stops us and asks us if we’d like to participate in a private yoga class that he would do for us free. Typically we’d say no, but we gave each other a “why not?” look and went with it. If we were going to die, we had each other and an epic story no one would ever know about. Carpe diem, right?
That night was one of the most unreal nights of my entire life.
His yoga class was unlike any practice I’ve ever experienced. He set us up under the stars behind a beautiful building of worship (not sure which religion). He simultaneously guided us in meditation, challenging us to use our non-dominant hand as to bring more balance to our lives and telling us to squat more for it keeps your body more agile. After our private yoga class was finished, he invited us to a Chinese Opera in the town next door. He seemed like a kind man who, if he really wanted to hurt us, would’ve murdered us by then. Plus, when you’re invited to a Chinese Opera in Malaysia with a backstage pass, you go with it.
He drove Chelsea on his moped first then came back for me. The performance started as a puppet show. It was definitely strange, but we were given tea and just soaked it all in. Next we moved to an area where a man was literally whipping himself. Bleeding, yelling, seemingly possessed. Similar to the “Vegetarian Festival” in Thailand, they were explaining that he had a spirit come over him and was proving that his body was not connected to the spirit.
Then it was time for the actual Opera. A VERY LOUD OPERA. Caps lock doesn’t even begin to represent how loud it was. I can still hear it ringing in the back of my head.
We went backstage, met the beautifully adorned singers, make-up artists, costume designers, and one-man band producing the chaotic sounds for the show. We also met two miscellaneous people just hanging out back stage, seemingly friends with our host. The woman was dressed in all purple. Down to her nails, earrings, socks, literally everything on her was purple. The man was a gentle presence, speaking few words but observing everything. They invited us out for tea after the show and, again, you don’t pass this kind of stuff up.
Turns out the two were astrologists. They told us all about the universe, conversing about certain energies, and even telling Chelsea and me information about ourselves we never provided to them based on our birthdays and time of birth. It was jaw-dropping. Their talent & skills, whatever you want to call it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Now get this: they had just met that day.
Malaysia is magical. Go there.
Before I started traveling to developing nations, I had heard that culture shock can be intense. What I’ve learned is that reverse culture shock is way more powerful. When you’re traveling somewhere new, you anticipate the unexpected. You’re waiting for the customs to surprise you and the traditions to challenge you, but you expect it. After living in Bangkok and traveling around Southeast Asia for six months, I was entirely unprepared to return to more “first world” places.
Fortunately, our study abroad semester had a week built in at the end to be spent in Hong Kong & Macau. The perfect in-between: Asia meets “first world.” We went to Disney Land, gambled at casinos in Macau, saw some of the Grand Prix, and went to two westernized festivals – one in Hong Kong & one in Macau. The trip helped us to slowly acclimate for our return stateside.
We also were all super broke at that point, so just walking around, going to Mount Victoria* to see the city from above, and watching the synchronized light show at night across from the Hong Kong skyline were fun, cheap ways to explore the city.
One thing I will never forget about being in Hong Kong was that we were there for the 2008 Presidential Election. Most of us had sent in ballots from abroad, but we saw Obama elected as America’s first black president just before we returned to the States. It was definitely a memorable moment in history and a unique place to experience such a monumental event.
*Several photos in this spread were taken by RIchard Marks
You don’t really realize how much you miss freshly baked bread until you live in a noodle/rice-oriented place for a while. Then you travel to a neighboring country, a former French colony, and are ready to spend all of your money on the first street vendor you see with baguettes and “Laughing Cow” cheese.
Lao is definitely a country that goes under-appreciated and under-explored. I’m certainly guilty of the latter. Our time in Lao was brief, but impactful. The museums brought so much of the country’s history to light and the French influence really shocks you, especially being in Asia. Lao was definitely the first place I traveled to that made middle & high school history class come alive. I used to hate the subject; I could never remember who was a part of what battle, which countries won during which year, and how many people were killed or survived. There was something about Lao, however, that had me fascinated in the sequence of events that led it to be the country it is today. History all started to become relatable. Ever since then, I’ve been infatuated with learning the background of everywhere I go as I travel.
Aside from the history, Lao is very green and very lush. The river towns are simple, except one crazy place called Vang Vieng. If you’ve traveled to Lao, you know about Vang Vieng. I probably shouldn’t go into explicit detail, but let’s just say it’s a hybrid of hippie and adrenaline junkie with “Family Guy” and “Friends” as the background noise.
I’d love to go back to Lao and explore more of the caves and countryside, but for now I’ll appreciate the short time I had there.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to appropriately capture the intriguing, mystifying essence of Cambodia. To prepare ourselves for our trip, naturally, we watched the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. We did not, however, expect to have such an intensely heavy experience. Like its neighboring countries, Cambodia is chock-full of rich and complex history.
The insurgency of the Khmer Rouge Regime and the Cambodian genocide were perplexing and unforgettable events that have proven the resiliency of the country. Because of the notorious history, we made sure to visit the Killing Fields, a historical massacre site where over a million Cambodians were slaughtered. Even just breathing the air, you could sense the significant amount of pain at this mass grave. A tall tower stands at the entrance of the Killing Fields with multiple shelves of skulls, only a small representation of the number of lives lost during that tragic time. Memorial sites like that are always very sobering and humbling, reminding you of how fortunate you are to not live in a violent oppressing place.
So as not to feel like horrible people, we went and learned how to shoot AK-47s and rifles before we went to the Killing Fields. I’d like to believe my friends and I are all kind, peaceful, non-violent people, but we are also adventurous and love learning new things. I’m not really a fan of guns (only Nerf & water), but it was interesting shooting a real gun and understanding how it feels.
Lastly, referring back to the aforementioned movies that were filmed in Cambodia, we had to make sure we visited the infamous & magical, Angkor Wat. Our group got up before the sunrise, jumped on some rickshaws and spent our morning watching the sun come up behind the ancient ruins. Hot air balloons, monkeys, children begging you to buy picturesque post-cards, water lilies, and gnarly trees are just a few of the treats you get to experience when walking through the temple complex. If you’ve ever seen Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple, you'd agree that Angkor Thom looks just like Olmec – a talking head with legendary stories.
Overall, our experience in Cambodia was definitely one that we can tell our grandchildren about. History came alive in more ways than one and it was a place truly unlike any other.
If you’ve ever been to Vietnam, I'm sure you'll agree that it has absolutely breathtaking landscapes. I was only able to explore the north, but I can say without reservation that it is the top country to visit for a life-changing experience. The history in itself is worth going for, but then you throw in a floating village in Halong Bay and some remarkable caves and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a trip you’ll never, ever forget.
Thailand may be my favorite country, but Halong Bay, Vietnam, is definitely my single favorite place. The mountainous islets sit stoically in place as boats glide by with travelers from all over the world. From what I’ve heard, party boat tours are cropping up more and more (which feels a bit out of place), but the boat my friends and I boarded was classic. Full fish dinners, swimming in the moonlight, kayaking excursions, honest conversations with Vietnamese crew members, and a tour of ancient caves filled with incredible stalactite formations lit up with an array of colors.
Before we experienced Halong Bay, we stayed in Sapa for a few days. Sapa is a small town with access to the rice patty villages dispersed across hundreds of acres of tiered landscape. We went on a few days worth of treks with our Australian twanging Vietnamese tour guides through a variety of villages. Their inflections are a dead giveaway from whom the locals learned English from.
Some villages we passed through focused on the use of indigo, providing it for other villages who focused on making fabric later utilized for the production of clothing, bags, etc. We tried real sugar cane, but avoided the beetle nuts (a signature cause of rotten teeth in the people of the area), we saw how rice is collected, and we also had the BEST authentic pho I’ve ever tasted.
I certainly plan to go back to Vietnam one day to explore the central and southern parts, but not without swinging by Halong Bay for another magical getaway.
During a brief slice of time within our Malaysian adventure, my college roommate, Chelsea, and I were able to pop into Brunei for a day, a tiny enclave country nestled in a distinct corner of Borneo. Here are a few fun facts about Brunei you may not know:
1. It’s a dry country. You cannot purchase, order, or bring alcohol into the country.
2. There’s a Sultan. If you can imagine Aladdin being real, I’d think Jasmine’s palace would be the one situated in the center of Brunei.
3. There is a village on stilts – an actual town elevated above the river. There’s even a firehouse on stilts, which I found quite comical. In order to get around town, you have to ride in these boats called, “Flying Coffins.” They’re basically fast, little water taxis.
Chelsea and I were in Brunei for only a day, but it happened to be the day after we climbed Mt. Kinabalu. Thus, we were incapable of walking like normal humans in society. We were stumbling off of curbs, hobbling around like old ladies, and avoiding going down any stairs at all cost. It was absolutely hysterical.
When we went to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque (Jasmine’s palace), the Imam of the Mosque invited us to see the interior. He gave us traditional burqas and gave us a tour of the most beautiful house of worship I’ve ever stepped inside. It was spectacular.
We took a walk to the back of the mosque where there was an enchanting pagoda over a body of water that had actual komodo dragons swimming around. DRAGONS. You know, the ones from movies? Yeah, we were 50% petrified/50% sure one of the dragons would’ve easily eaten us in two bites if we got close enough. We kept our distance, got a photo and made our way back to the bus station to head back across the border to Malaysia. Definitely a cool way to spend a day.
No joke, Togo is a wildly under-rated African country. I mean, you can’t just be one of the origin places of voodoo and not be incredibly intriguing. When we were living in Ghana, we took two separate trips to Togo, each time learning about the ancient art of dark magic. Dog skulls, animal fetishes, and metal talismans were tucked away in people’s homes & yards, market stalls, and cars as an indication of warding off bad energy and redirecting it to enemies.
Togo is a fascinating place, one reminding me of our discovery of baguettes in Lao after leaving Thailand for the first time in months. Togo had wine, cheese, and the people spoke French; drastically different from Ghana where we drank ciders and water out of sacks.
While living in Ghana we took regular weekend trips, some to other districts in Ghana, some across borders. When we visited Togo, we went into it with wide eyes. The markets (a cultural must-do everywhere I go) in Togo were just as vibrant as Ghana, but dustier, less crowded, and less abrasive. The people loved to teach us about voodoo, though we only understood as much as Liyam (a grad school friend) could translate from her high school French. It actually turned into a funny hand-gesturing, charade type of conversation almost every time. You’d be surprised at how good we got at asking for directions or ordering food solely with hand signals.
Many locals were eager to show us around and one even put us on a man-powered boat (a very muscular man literally paddled us all the way across a massive lake) to make it easier for our journey back to Ghana. There’s a certain African hospitality that runs strong through most of the countries I’ve visited. Once you acquaint yourself with locals and understand the culture enough to fit in, you’ll be seen as a member of the community, a “sister” or “brother.” I can’t guarantee, though, that getting there is the easiest feat, but it’s definitely worth it.