I think the innate desire to explore is really one of the most human things about us and really fascinates me (I don't mean the desire to travel, but that instinct inside of us that tells us that the summit or the beyond could hold something incredible), because it stretches all the way back to some of our very earliest memories, before we really knew anything about the concept of traveling or exploration or what any of that means or if any of it matters. It’s just a simple, almost animalistic instinct we don’t even question: climb this, look at that, see what’s beyond that hill, maybe there’s something magic up there.

When I was little, there was this hill behind one of the many, many houses my dad lived in after my parents got divorced. I think we moved every four months or so during those years, but I remember this one place specifically because of the hill behind it. So this house, it was a shed-like little thing with small windows and chipped white painted walls and crooked sliding glass doors, but I remember the morning we moved in, I was standing in the patch of weeds that was the “backyard,” and was looking up at this hill that sloped steeply up right behind the house, and I remember it so clearly, feeling that I needed to see what was on top of it and what was beyond it. Needed to. There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about this hill I should add: nothing pretty or lovely or inviting about it. When my dad moved in it was late autumn in New York, barely teetering on the brink of winter, so the hill was matted in wet, fallen leaves and the occasional discarded soda cans or beer bottles and bare brown skeletal trees, but I guess what was so fascinating to me was that I couldn’t see the top of it, I had no idea what was beyond it, and I HAD to figure it out. I ended up pulling my brother up the hill with me, shlepping through the muddy leaves and the sharp thorns of the empty raspberry bushes, just to see what the view was. It turned out that it just looked down onto to the backyard of someone else’s house. I saw a woman standing in the kitchen, cooking something. Through the open window I could smell something, like grilled cheese. Satisfied, I returned down the hill.

But this pattern is constant, I mean constant. It changes, it matures, but it never leaves. As we get older, this desire shifts, and we become introspective and we understand it more, we analyze it, and expand upon it (it turns into the desire to travel, to take road trips, to climb mountains, to see what’s around a bend in the canyon walls). But it always just comes back down to this very deep, very unexplainable, very reflexive pull to discover and satisfy our curiosities in the wilderness. It’s why even now, I’ll occasionally drive or walk past a forested hill or a grassy rolling pasture, and have to know what’s on the over side of it, what the view is, what’s up there, if the light is different. Just because I understand it now doesn’t make me any different than the young girl standing in her dad’s backyard, looking up at something unfamiliar, wondering about the potential of something wonderful.

The Time a Snickers Bar Saved My Life

Or, at least, made being trapped in the Himalayas after an avalanche
a bit more tolerable.

Somehow a Snickers bar is most satisfying when it’s been accidentally frozen long enough to chip a tooth when it’s finally bitten into after being chiseled with a broken blade in a log hut during a blizzard.

I’d been carrying that particular candy bar at the bottom of my backpack for twenty-seven days. When I finally pulled it from the trenches of my 85-liter pack (which was essentially the equivalent of carrying a small caravan on my back), it was dented, poked, and prodded from the weight of ice axes, misshapen shoes, safety ropes, tent poles, half-filled water bottles, rocks I found on the path that seemed interesting enough to keep, and bags of clothes still damp and heavy from being haphazardly washed in the Kali Gandaki river.

When I had first tucked that chocolate bar away into the depths of the backpack, I was standing in my warm hostel room in Kathmandu in my freshly-washed jeans and boots that had yet to be introduced to mud or ice or quicksand, and was giddy with the idea of myself peeling off the Snicker’s tantalizing wrapper once I reached the hardest point of the 35-day trek in the Himalayas that I was about to attempt.

Most trekkers in Nepal tend to stick to three main routes: the twelve-day walk to Everest Base Camp, the fifteen-day walk to Annapurna Base Camp, or the twenty-day walk through the entire Annapurna region called the Annapurna Circuit. I found, though, that because of the frequency of small villages throughout the Himalayas where it’s possible to gather food supplies and gas — which is essentially all you need to keep going in the backcountry — I could stay out in the mountains for as long as I wanted, just as long as I could have access to a refueling village when I was running low on supplies. So I decided to link together the climb to Annapurna’s Base Camp (which peaked at the base camp at 13,600 feet) along with the entire Annapurna Circuit (which peaked at the top of a pass called Thorung La at 17,700 feet), which seemed like an exciting and challenging trek. Except, that left me with the pressing issue of which trail summit was monumental enough to have my Snickers.

On my comfortable flight from New York to Kathmandu, and then on the eleven hour bus ride to the city of Pokhara with a chicken and a random child sitting on my lap, and then on the back of a motorcycle-taxi that took me to the trailhead nestled at the foothills of the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, I contemplated at which point in the coming six weeks I would fish out the chocolate.

When I finally bit into the candy bar, however, I wasn’t watching the mauve alpenglow of sunrise illuminate the icy massifs and glaciers surrounding me at Annapurna’s Base Camp. 

I also wasn’t standing just shy of 18,000 feet at one of the highest walkable mountain passes in Nepal, in a flurry of whipping snow and blue sky and sun-bleached prayer flags fluttering so fast in the icy wind that they sound a cacophony of helicopters in the middle of mountain wilderness.

Instead, it was in a cramped log hut with enough spacing between its panel walls that the snow from a blizzard outside consistently collected in the crooks of my arms if I stayed still long enough, and accompanied by the weak flames of a dying fire (we had to save kindling, who knew how long the storm would last), and two men who were too deep into a conversation about the existence of God to notice that I was busy attempting to thaw out the frozen caramel of my trekking reward on a lukewarm log.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Up until that day, everything had gone without incident. 

In fact, each day in the mountains began to blend into the next, defined only by changes of scenery; one day follows the length of the river as it snakes through meadows of purple alpine wildflowers. Another day traverses suspension bridges missing boards where there certainly should be boards but are too tangled with prayer flags and fraying ropes to really give any trekker enough time to fully analyze the safety specs of these ancient contraptions. Another day climbs steeply through cloud forests, around narrow bends in the muddy path that sinks down into valleys and up again into the foggy cliffs, where both local children and mules and red-furred monkeys watch from canopies and flowering rhododendron bushes until, all at once, I’m alone again.

There are small consistencies in these days, though, despite the changing terrains and watchful eyes from those who are passed. Going to sleep at sunset, waking just before sunrise. The rich woodsmoke and ginger scent of a cup of milky, sugary chai brewing at a teahouse as Iccrouch outside, attempting to dry out my boots in the last rays of sunlight from an accidental step in a stream. The countless times I almost tripped on a rock or a patch of ice because I was too busy focusing my eyes on the impossibly foreboding view of a peak looming on the horizon.

You think mountains are big, you think clouds are high. 

But then you see the Himalayas.

DSC_6664.jpg

There’s also a certain amount of camaraderie on the trail — after all, because most trekkers do one of three main trails, there’s a good chance a backpacker will consistently run into another backpacker they’ve ran into before, so even the solo trekker, like myself, ends the day sharing a thermos of hot chocolate with someone they’ve seen before — but for a good deal of the time in the Himalayas, I was alone. In fact, I was so transfixed on the fact that I even made it to the summit of Thorung La Pass and Annapurna Base Camp that, when I did, I sat in silence, alone, and completely forgot about my Snickers bar. Usually it was only the loss of feeling in my fingers and toes, the shallowness of my breath, and the impending sinking sun behind the jagged horizon that reminded me to keep walking.

I had completely forgotten about that precious chocolate bar until it was day thirty-one on the trail, and we had just hit the twenty-five hour mark of sitting in that hut by the fire when Klaus asked through his thick, guttural accent if we were sure that we didn’t have anymore food, and I remembered the candy bar.

It was not the most ideal situation. As I used Klaus’s pocket knife to whittle the frozen chocolate into three pieces to split among us, I thought about myself on the flight descending into Kathmandu when I was deciding when I should eat the Snickers.    

It’s safe to say that at the time, I did not anticipate it happening like this.

But I guess that’s what I deserved for thinking I could make it out of six weeks in the Himalayas unscathed. About three hours after I descended from Annapurna’s Base Camp, I found a group of Sherpas standing on the side of the trail talking into radios with worry fixed on their faces, which is never a good sign, especially not at 13,000 feet. Quickly they informed me that a low-altitude blizzard had swept into the valley beneath us — a valley that we needed to traverse as there was no other way to get back to a town or road — and took down an avalanche with it, covering the only route in and out of the section of mountain I was in. 

As they trudged through the snow past me to go check for other climbers up at the base camp to inform them, I asked what I should do.

“Find shelter, sit tight.”

I continued down the path as the storm clouds grew heavier and the path became increasingly heavy with snow for a few minutes until I was met the familiar smell of woodsmoke, and then the sight of flickering orange light through a cracked door of a little hut down a hill.

As I stepped inside, I was met with a few sights you don’t normally find a traditional log cabin. First, there was no actual floor — just a layer of straw dusted with the snow blowing in through the cracks of the walls — and two white men, about my father’s age and my grandfather’s age, crouched by the fire, sharing a plastic bag of trail mix. The grandfather-looking one seemed to be fishing out the M&M’s.

Immediately I was welcomed to join them, and somewhere in between being offered a handful of the trail mix and a joke that went something like “Well, who knew it could snow in the Himalayas!”, I attempted to put together some pieces about the people I was suddenly sitting between in a small Nepalese hut. The younger of the two introduced himself as Klaus, an Austrian mountaineer who was visiting Annapurna’s Base Camp for the seventh time that season to acclimatize himself before attempting a summit push later that year. He wore a red bandana tightly around his neck in lieu of a scarf, which didn’t quite draw attention away from the olderman whose jacket and backpack were sewn with so many rainbow peace & love patches that I felt like I was looking at a picture my dad had once shown me of himself in the 70’s. He introduced himself as John, who was 75 years old and hailed from Seattle, and had been going to Nepal every year for the past thirty years of his life. Then, without asking anything about who I was aside from my name (which they both never got right but after three attempts to correct them I just accepted my fate as “Kate” and “Tay”), they continued their conversation where it was before I appeared. I settled in.

For fifty hours, it continued.

Though the snow outside steadied, it never seemed to slow. And neither did John and Klaus’s debates. As if I was just a fly on the wall, I sat cross-legged on the frozen straw floor, listening to the two of them discuss their purposes in Nepal, whether God exists, whether they had randomly ended up here or if there was a greater energy who put them there, or if they themselves had subconsciously willed this into existence. I was mostly concerned that I was running out of things in the room to count to entertain myself (seven peanuts in my section of the Snickers bar, for example).

A few times, it seemed that the snow had slowed enough for us to descend and make a new path around where the avalanche had wiped out the trail, but ultimately it was too risky. So we waited. And waited. I walked a few laps around the cabin, but would come back in to find more bickering around the inevitability of the dire fate of the human race. During this particular debate, I counted thirty-three log panels on the roof of the hut, and nine chocolate chips in the last Cliff Bar we each had. Half of the bar was lunch, the other half was dinner. I was asleep by 4:00 both nights.

On the third morning, all it took was a peak through the panels of the wall to see the green light of the backcountry: blue sky.

I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed it into the bottom of my backpack where the Snickers bar used to be, and left the cabin before the two others could finish their yawns and another joke, “So, at what point do we resort to cannibalism, or does one of us have to die first?”

As I began walking down the trail, using my trekking poles to steady myself on the black ice underneath the fresh powder, I thought that maybe once I’d get back to Kathmandu, I deserved one more chocolate bar. But I was really sick of Snickers.

Looking back toward where the blizzard hit after traversing out of the mountains. The avalanche is the solid patch of snow you see on the face of the half-hidden mountain on the far left.

Looking back toward where the blizzard hit after traversing out of the mountains. The avalanche is the solid patch of snow you see on the face of the half-hidden mountain on the far left.

30 Most Practical Tips for Traveling

After 65 countries, I've been asked to put together a list of my most practical tips for any kind of travel; whether year-long round-the-worlds, or your first 10-day trip abroad. Things learned from my own mistakes, you hopefully you can skip that mistake yourself.

  1. Before you leave the country, call your bank to tell them the dates you will be traveling, and the countries you will be traveling to, including layovers. That way your card isn’t immediately canceled once you try to withdraw money or buy a muffin in the Dubai airport.
  2. Take out plenty of cash once you get where you’re going. Stash it all over you. In your daypack. In your wallet. In a hiking boot. In a hat. Make sure you don’t misplace it, but this way you will always have cash in case something is stolen or lost.
  3. Don’t share cab rides with strangers from airports. We’ve all seen Taken.
  4. Similarly, don't take any unmarked taxis, and negotiate a price before you get in the cab (you should have researched how much a cab is to the city center - or wherever you're going - before you arrive, to avoid being ripped off).
  5. When you first book your trip, book a hostel in the location you’re flying into for the first two nights. This will give you time to get your bearings, to read over your guidebook for the 90th time, to talk to other travelers and the people who work there and see what tips/insights they have, to adjust to the food and time zone, etc. You’ll feel better if you can sleep in and know you have a definite place to lay down for the next couple of days.
  6. Look up Visa requirements. Do you need one? Can you get it at the airport once you arrive?
  7. Also, if you're the kind of person to buy one-way plane tickets, see if you need a plane ticket leaving the country to even be able to enter. This is the case for many Southeast Asian countries, so do your research and be sure you meet all requirements before you get to the check-in counter!
  8. Find a market near your hostel to buy granola bars, a box of cereal, a bag of pasta, fruit, some vegetables if your hostel has a communal fridge. Get used to cooking your own meals. You’ll save money that way, and it could add up to a great meal elsewhere.
  9. You’ll get sick. You just will. Most likely it will be a case of the “traveler’s runs”, but know where the closest travelers medical clinic is, anyway. Travelers Insurance is always a good idea, or be prepared to pay out of pocket. And be calm. We’ve all been there. I’m notorious for ending up in hospitals abroad. It just happens.
  10. Know where it is & isn't safe to drink the tap water. And if it isn't safe, then don't even brush your teeth with it, unless you’ve been on the road for 3+ years and your body has adapted. Don’t eat the ice. Don’t trust ice cream that isn’t packaged. And if you can't say for certain that the meat you're eating has come from a clean facility, then avoid eating meat, too.
  11. Make copies of your passport. Make copies of your immunizations records. Make copies of your flight itineraries. Make copies of your med prescriptions and eyeglass prescriptions.
  12. If you CouchSurf or use AirBnB, be sure to read all reviews of that person on their profile. Have a backup plan in case you need to bail. (which is extremely rare, but, safety first). And, if you CouchSurf, be ready to socialize, a lot. You never know what you'll get, but I've found that your host will most likely want to show you their city as they see it. Have fun with it, and run with it.
  13. Don’t be the sloppy, loud, rude backpacker. I hate to say it, because it’s rather obvious to say, but people with bad hostel etiquette or have no desire to adjust to the local customs are just inconvenient and rude. Pick up after yourself. Try not to explode your backpack when you unpack. And please, don’t come stumbling loudly into a dorm at 5 AM puking up tequila shots. No one is then going to want to invite you onto that 6 AM sunrise hike. 
  14. Bring: water purification (I prefer Aquamira, but Steri-Pens work as well). A headlamp. Spare batteries. A small phrasebook. A swiss army knife. First aid kit. Light-weight sleep sheet (otherwise known as a sleeping bag liner). Ziplocs and plastic bags. Spare headphones in case yours break. Cheap rubber flip-flops for communal hostel showers. Read into the culture of where you’re headed. Pack accordingly. Cultural respect comes first (how long should your skirts/dresses/shorts be? Should you even be in shorts at all? Should you cover your shoulders or chest or both?). And don’t forget to read up on the weather. Yes, you are going to the Sahara Desert, but it drops to freezing at night. Lightweight thermal underwear is always good, just in case.
  15. When you can, keep up to date on the news. Pull up CNN.com when you find yourself in an internet cafe. Read the current Travel Advisories. Stay updated. Things happen in the most unexpected places. 
  16. Be patient. The train or boat you’ll have wanted to take that Monday morning will only run once a week on every Friday. Things will be delayed. 80% of the world runs in slow motion compared to “our” world, which is run by agendas and crunch times. Bring a book with you, bring a deck of cards, get a game going with the locals while you wait for the 6 hour delayed bus. Laugh. Write. Embrace it.
  17. You’ll probably lose your luggage. At least once. Pack spare underwear and essential toiletries (this includes medications you need) in your carry-on. Then find a shopping center wherever you’re headed and get some cheap clothes to change into while you wait for your actual bags to come. It’ll be okay. It happens to all of us.
  18. Taking taxis isn’t cheating. When you’re lost, frustrated, or nervous, don’t feel like you aren’t “roughing it” just because you want a direct drive to take you where you need to be.
  19. Engorge on the free hostel breakfast. I know, I know. It’s some sort of white bread, packaged butter and jam that looks like Jell-O, a tub of olives (“who thought this was a good idea?”), and maybe some Frosted Flakes and lukewarm milk if you’re lucky. But engorge yourself. If it’s all-you-can-eat, sneak a chunk of bread and an apple into your pack. Boom, there’s your free lunch, too.
  20. Speaking of food, be adventurous, but don’t be risky. Swallow live mealworms in the Amazon? Sure! Drink the blood from a sacrificed goat in Tanzania? Like tea! Some sort of goopy, cheesy, corn-soup-esque, fermented stew with hunks of indiscernible bone and meat that your host mother in Tibet just handed to you? Thank you! It’s often incredibly rude to deny a meal when offered to you, so, enjoy it and plaster that smile. In this case, the “runs” will probably happen, but, c’est la vie. What a story! And no one was offended in the process.
  21. When somebody asks where you’re staying, be vague. When a complete stranger asks to drive you from the bar to your hostel, you have every right to say no. The chances are they’re just genuinely curious or friendly, but be smart. Use your common sense. Use your gut. This goes for men and women.
  22. But don’t close yourself off. There’s a difference between being wary and being unreachable. It’s okay to talk to strangers. Listen to their stories. It comes back around to this: follow. your. instinct. If someone is giving you a bad vibe, trust that it’s not coming from thin air, and try to always let someone (who you trust) know where you're going and who you're with.
  23. Don’t buy the mass produced souvenirs. Please. It was made in a factory somewhere, and is distributed globally. That's why you'll see the exact same "African masks" and "Asian Buddhas" in 40,000 markets across the planet. Buy from someone who is actually making what they’re selling, so you know the money goes directly into their pocket, and what you’re taking back with you is genuine, real, and you know its maker’s first name.
  24. Don’t walk with your headphones in.
  25. Sit in the hostel common room. Even if you’re just reading or working on your computer. People-watch, listen to conversations, be present. People will talk to you. Likewise, talk to people. You could find an incredible adventure, or at least someone to spend the day looking at a temple with or having a drink or dinner with. They will always teach you something you didn’t know before. Now is the time to challenge yourself to be as open and as outgoing as possible. Remember: no one knows you here. That’s a pretty incredible gift and opportunity.
  26. Carry tokens of your home with you, especially if you’re doing a home-stay. Whether that’s a San Francisco postcard, or a small stack of photos of your life at home. It will come in handy at some point, and is a kind, fun gesture, and a way to bridge the gap between yourself and someone else.
  27. Save cash. You can do laundry in the sink.
  28. Be flexible. If people in your hostel invite you out to explore, or to a sports event, or out for drinks, or on a kayak trip, or even to a new city in the opposite direction of where you thought you were headed, go. It may just change your life. Or it may not, but in that case, you’ll still end up with new stories, new connections, and a new path. I promise you won’t regret finding out.
  29. (This is mostly for Europe travel): most countries offer some kind of discount with their train-rail passes. Take the time to talk to people who work at a train station. Do your research instead of springing for the first option. You’ll save money in the long run.
  30. Don’t be tied to the internet. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a laptop (for work’s sake or backing up photos), but try not to spend hours every day chatting on Facebook and scrolling Instagram. Now is a good time to ween yourself away. Find yourself online every now and then, send some photos to mom and dad, write a blog post, upload photos, and don’t feel guilty for it when you do. But I promise, it will all be there when you get back.
  31. Abandon all preconceptions. Traveling light means leaving any excess baggage - both literally and mentally - behind.
  32. Finally, know you can come home, whenever you want. If you are truly unhappy, burnt out, or just want to leave, you can. You are under no obligation to stick it out just because everyone else is expecting you and telling you to be having the time of your life. Change your plane ticket; go somewhere else. Or change your plane ticket, and just come home. But remember that each place holds its own magic and there are lessons found in every challenge, every difficulty, and every struggle on the road. Travel is not always beautiful, kind, and forgiving, as so much of us are lead to believe. It’s not what we always dream it will be. But it is what we make it. Take away goodness from the hardship, and remember to love and respect a place for what it is instead of resenting it for any preconceived notions or problems you have with it, and use the lessons you learn abroad (what makes me happy? what truly matters?) to better yourself in that moment, and eventually, somewhere else. 

Five continents, fifteen countries, tens of thousands of miles,

And, it’s over.

I remember the drive to San Francisco’s airport on that morning, it was cold and dark for spring, everything covered in dew and the tops of the eucalyptus trees shrouded in a heavy layer of fog. I remember I could smell the ocean that morning. I remember I walked through my house, lightly running my fingers over every wall I walked past as I headed for the front door, as I always do before departing for a trip (I don’t know why I do it, actually, it started as something I was unaware of but I feel like it’s my way of saying see you eventually to the sturdy walls that are home, sturdy walls I will soon be without), but I remember thinking, this time is different. This time is different. I wasn’t just leaving for a short work trip and would be back in a couple weeks, or to visit my family in the east coast and would be back in a few days. I wasn’t even leaving for one of the longer, 6-8 week expeditions I’d found myself doing in the past few years, where I was always focusing on just one country or region and was always, always, traveling with somebody; whether a boyfriend, a friend, clients, colleagues. I felt, this is different. There was a plane at the airport with a seat waiting for me — the first leg of 42 flights — that would take me to 15 countries over the course of almost five months, on a nonstop expedition to five continents. The last time I did a round-the-world like that — back in 2013 — I came back to America feeling transformed, mesmerized by the euphoria of solo travel (I’d traveled solo countless times before, but never for 9 months, to 12 countries, nonstop), and mostly, just how different my life was. I was happier than I ever thought was possible. I met people that mattered more to me and felt more familiar than others I’d known my whole life. My career took off. I discovered a life full of joy, of adventure, and forward to me standing in the empty foyer of my house, it was about to happen again.

As I locked the front door for the last time for months, I wondered how different my life would be the next time I’d put my key in that lock. I wondered if I would be sicker, stronger, happier, tired from so much transit, or eager to leave again; who I’d meet, who I’d reconnect with, what would move me, what would challenge me, what would change me.

Before pulling up at the Departures terminal that morning, through the heavy San Francisco fog, the clouds cleared for a moment and I saw the sun break through the mist, casting long amber rays onto the tarmac, pulling my eyes up to the sky, as if the world was saying, Come closer. 

You have no idea what you’re about to discover.

But now it’s over, and I’m amazed.

I knew that I would enjoy my adventure — even on past trips abroad that have lasted for months (not necessarily RTW’s, but longterm expeditions) where I was deeply challenged or frustrated or sick or exhausted, I always walked away with something, so it was never any doubt that I wouldn’t grow from this RTW, in one way or another. 

But the scale in which I was shown the true, deep, bountiful beauty of the planet and so many of its creatures and people — kind, honest, beautiful, extraordinary souls — is something that kept leaving me speechless. Again and again and again. I remember, towards the end of my first two weeks in South America, I was swimming in a hot spring deep in the Andes mountains at 15,000 ft. It was 1 o’clock in the morning and just 2°F, and I floated with my neck craned up towards the heavens, watching meteors and shooting stars streak across the gloriously black sky, covered in a blanket of stars and a Milky Way so remarkably bright that looming glaciers of the surrounding Andean peaks were reflected the celestial light, making the mountains illuminate against the navy darkness, as if cradling me in a valley of sleeping, glowing giants. I remember thinking, This is happiness, and I don’t know how it can get any better than this. 

Somehow, though, it always did. It always got better. As I scaled the continents, drew closer, discovered, I pushed myself beyond my limits, and I felt. I felt. The numbness of stagnancy was shaken off me that moment my plane first lifted off from San Francisco those months ago, and every moment since then has felt like God or the Universe or whomever or whatever was grabbing me by the arm, leading me to someone or something incredible and saying, This is here for you, this is how the world can be, it’s always here for you, you just have to choose it. 

Then I arrived here. Collapsing in my final Departures terminal with deep, bone-aching exhaustion — but, the kind of good exhaustion, like the kind you have at the end of a long ten mile hike where your body is beautifully sore and you’re covered in dust and mud and are smiling wildly and sleepily and euphorically at passerby’s who probably think you’re crazy — exhaustion that sweeps over you and just as it makes you feel eccentrically happy and dizzy with love for everyone you’ve met and everything you’ve seen, you also notice a slight, sad twinge behind it all, and you notice an underlying sensation of melancholy and nostalgia creep into your chest, waiting to be acknowledged and carried and slowly grow heavier as you transition back home. When a few days pass and you begin to miss the simplicity of living out of a backpack, of only having to carry what’s necessary (and therefore realizing everything you own that’s not), of certain peoples’ voices and nights of ringing laughter (laughter that’s so deep and loud and makes your stomach cramp, laughter that makes you realize you haven’t laughed like that in, what, months? years?), of vistas that move you to tears and days so heartbreakingly beautiful that they bring you to your knees, and the moment when you unlock your front door again and step inside and think to yourself that everything is the same, except you, and you put down your backpack and find something, somehow, different.

I know I will remember this adventure as one of the most poignant, most remarkably special experiences of my life. It was a reminder of happiness. It was a reminder of everything I’d lost, come back to me. It was a reminder of who I am. It was happiness. From the lion calls of Botswana, from the outstretched arms under cascading waterfalls, from the rooftop sunsets and ramadan of Morocco, from the deep jungles of Sumatra, from the glaciers of Peru, from the ramba and rum of Cuba, from the midnight swims under fireworks and stars of Indonesia, it was everything. It was indigo. It was brightness.

Go bravely into the world. Let your life unfold. Let the world show you how big, how surprising, how magnificent it can be, and you will discover.

I know I have. Let's see where this goes next.

Cuba

Rooftop bars where white-bearded expats sit in woven hats amongst young Brits in polos, smoking their long cigarettes and drinking mojitos out of tall, sweating glasses. An acoustic guitar is strummed by a man in a white linen shirt, and a cool breeze breaks the heat as it rolls in from over the ocean. I take a sip of an espresso in between heavy conversation about the revolution, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve stepped into an alternate reality, or at least one where I can’t help but understand why people come to Cuba and never seem to let it go.

Cuba is everything you would ever imagine, it’s a postcard come to life, a humid History Channel special that you walk into, and yet it’s enormously beyond what you could have ever expected. Havana itself surprisingly quiet in terms of traffic, curled up on the empty, polite shore of the Caribbean and the tumbling green forests that line its fortress walls. Cuba's crumbling streets dotted with wonderfully colorful cars from the 60’s – yes, there are as many as you’ve been lead to believe – their whimsical horns and roaring exhaust pipes creating a nonstop cacophony against a backdrop of blocky Soviet buildings, British colonial mansions covered in ivy and graffiti, and turquoise-and-gold painted restaurants and storefronts where locals lounge outside, reading old novels and selling cigars and pineapples and offering to shine your shoes. The accents are as thick and sweet as the cigar smoke in Hemingway’s favorite dim bars, and the locals openly grab each other’s hips in broad daylight on the stone walls that lines the marinas, or next to the square’s fountains, their skin bathed in buttery evening light. 3 PM on a Monday feels like 2 AM on a Saturday, and it’s effortlessly eccentric, almost maddeningly racy, and each minute spent in a crooked, dusty, deliciously musical alleyway almost begs you to join everyone else, to wear a little less. It feels like one hundred different places I’ve been to all rolled into one: the isolation of Barrow, Alaska; the colors and cobblestone of Cusco and Quito; the whimsy of Dubrovnik; the dust and Soviet squares of Bosnia; the sensuality and intimacy of Mykonos. Police officers stand on street corners playing guitars, apartment balconies overflow with purple flowers yet stand above crumbling imperialist Danish buildings, each distant note of salsa music and the smell of rum begs you to come closer. It’s dystopian, it’s deep, it’s everything you thought couldn’t exist rolled into one little gorgeously mysterious island.

The rest of the country as well is vivid and bright, with richly green mountains that hold deep valleys of red rock and cool waterfalls, and empty, sprawling coastline that boasts vibrant coral reefs swarming with passive, curious sharks, hundreds of neon fish, and emerald waves that gently lap the white shores. Cuba is pausing to chew on sugar cane offered by an old farmer you pass by, it's the sound of a Harley's engine rippling across plains of buffalo and wildflowers.

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Java & Sumatra

Picture this.

In five days of insanity, you traveled to the mountainous interior of Java, Indonesia. You summited three active volcanos, scaled a thousand meters, twice, into two bubbling calderas, woke up at midnight for each summit push (and therefore are running collectively on 9 hours of sleep for those five days), got caught in rainstorms and lost your vision in a sulfur storm, haven’t eaten anything besides questionable coconut biscuits and roasted corn from some locals at small villages, developed a terrible sore throat from a toxic gas cloud, saw a tornado of blue fire that made you question whether you were dreaming or hallucinating (but no, it really happened), felt an eruption rumble at your feet, and are now cramped in a smoky bus, 12 hours into what was supposed to be a 5 hour journey to the coast to get in one last minute of surfing before flying to the jungles of northern Sumatra to search for the last remaining wild orangutans.

You're hungry. You're exhausted. You smell intensely of sulfur and cigarette smoke.

Tell me, what could be lovelier?

The transition from the tourist-packed islands of Bali, Lombok, and the Gilis to Java was stark; even though the transition merely consisted of a ferry ride across a small channel, getting off in Java felt like entering a new country, where the Call to Prayer bellowed from every direction and Westerners seemed to vanish, leaving me sitting solo and cross-legged on a sidewalk, having photos taken of me by curious, passing locals.

For the first time during my entire time in Indonesia thus far, I felt completely alone. I went to Java specifically to climb three remote volcanos in the interior, and though they're relatively popular climbs, I was still surprised by just how alone I was. In Bali, I was constantly bumping shoulders with Western tourists, but in Java, I only ever saw those crowds on the mountains themselves, and even then it was surprisingly sparse. Besides that, I was often the only non-Indonesian on buses, on trains, even at guesthouses. It finally felt like less like a vacation, more like an adventure, and I was finally off the map.

However, it didn't take long for me to realize that this part of my journey was going to be difficult. During my time in Java and Sumatra, I physically pushed myself beyond what I'd anticipated ever doing in Indonesia. It was not necessarily my intention to be so aggressive in terms of climbing, hiking, trekking, camping, but I was there, and after dealing with the difficulties of reaching Indonesia in the first place, I wasn't intending on letting a single opportunity slip by; the mental images of volcano summit views were the original reason why I decided on Indonesia months ago anyway. So despite my best judgments and my glaring desire for a good night's sleep, I traversed the mountains of Java, sleeping a couple hours here and there in dank guesthouses in the misty highlands, rising at midnight to summit peaks and gaze downwards from caldera rims, then losing track of time while sitting on the next humid, crowded bus as it rocked towards the next village, the next peak, the next highland. The climbs were significantly more challenging than I expected as well, with steep, slippery slogs that consistently reached 60 degree inclines for miles, upwards of nine hours of scrambling up-and-down rock faces or snaking up trails of volcanic sand and scree (one step up, two steps back). The benefit of spending so much time on the volcanoes, though, was the incredible relief from the excruciating heat of sea level — it was even chilly enough on the peaks where I needed my down jacket, which I hadn't worn since the Peruvian Andes months ago —  but there was still the humidity, thick and damp, which left me perpetually feeling like I was covered in wet mud that wouldn't dry, with clothes and gear moist and pungent with sulfur and dust. As well, most of the climbs were in the rain — torrential downpour-type rain — where I resigned to the weather, accepted it, and climbed anyway. Most summits were so shrouded with fog and heavy storm clouds that the spectacular vistas I'd originally come to Indonesia for were null; 14 hours of climbing to reach a view I'd dreamed about for years, just to be greeted by a somber screen of gray.

But even though I may not have gotten my spectacular, picturesque volcano sunrises, I got to experience the mountains in ways that few others do. Because of the horrible weather of the week that I was there, apparently many travelers avoided the mountains, which seemed to explain my apparent isolation. Even though I was consistently caught in rainstorms and didn't see the views that I came to Indonesia for, I was fortunate to feel almost alone, to spend time solo in the mountains, and to experience their remoteness as I originally dreamed. And when there were moments of awe-inspiring beauty — such as the blue fires of Volcano Ijen, or the tumbling plumes of ash and smoke from Volcano Bromo, or the vibration through my whole body as the volcano roared and rumbled beneath my feet — it felt like Java was opening itself up, even just a little bit, for me.

And yet, after I left the mountains and ended up in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, exhausted and sore in ways I didn't think was possible, I felt, for the first time during my entire round-the-world, burnt out.

The pollution, crowds, heat, dust, and overwhelmingly noisy streets of Yogyakarta were difficult to stomach after having spent so much time in the remote, picturesque seaside villages of Lombok and the clean mountains of Java. Yet as my plane from Yogyakarta descended into the island of Sumatra, I was instantly enamored again with the possibilities of Indonesia.

From the Sumatran city of Medan I immediately jumped in a bus to go to the interior, to a rainforest where the last remaining wild Sumatran orangutans hide. From the minute I stepped into the village where I'd be based, I was greeted by the beauty I'd been missing while in Java: gloriously green forests and sparkling rice terraces, a tumbling river that lapped up on the front steps of my porch where I swung in a hammock all evening listening to a thunderstorm, total quiet (no roads and no traffic for miles) with the exception of monkeys playing with coconuts in the trees above my roof, and a smattering of travelers who'd come to be the lively group I'd trek into the jungle with in search of orangutans.

So we trekked for days, for hours, only stopping to camp on the shore of the river (which was just a tarp propped up on bamboo poles with some flimsy mats for us to lay on), then woke to keep walking, hiking up steep muddy cliffs for hours at a time then down through treacherous, slippery ravines, pausing to cut open a watermelon in a clearing of ferns or to jump into the river when we had a free moment and there were no signs of rhino or tiger around. Sumatra was about eating curries and sharing stories around candlelight during the thunderstorms, laughing as we attempt to sleep while trying to keep monitor lizards from taking our boots. And, of course, the moment of unexplainable joy, of sweeping awe-inspiration, the first moment we spotted the movement of red fur of our endangered cousin sitting high in the branches, curiously and passively watching us.

The bus ride from the jungle back to the coast was long and unbelievably hot, and after having rushed and unsatisfying goodbyes in the middle of the humid, crowded chaos of Medan’s bus station, one moment passed and these people I had spent every hour with for the past however-many-days were gone and I was, for the final time, alone.

I walked for an hour until I found a small warung where I ate rice and curry for a few cents until I arrived at a guesthouse, where I was already inundated with emails and facebook messages from people I met across Indonesia over the past month, all asking me, “so, when are we going to meet again?” 

The question breaks my heart, but more than anything, makes me feel extraordinarily lucky. It has been years since I've been anywhere that has shown me as much beauty, adventure, and incredible people as Indonesia has. The miss and nostalgia I have for every soul I came across, the deep connections made, the midnight swims in the sea, the rice terraces and tangled jungles, the profound sense of possibility, is something I haven't experienced to this degree and magnitude in such a condensed amount of time in... well, I sincerely can't remember. And while I'm extraordinarily grateful for everyone I've met and the things I experienced in Indonesia, it's mostly put a fire in me to keep pursuing this life, to keep finding these people, to keep drawing closer. I promise I will. 

"But also I say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness, when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive."

 

- Mary Oliver, from 'Blue Iris'

to a good old friend

I guess you had to die eventually.

I just never thought it would happen while I’m routinely untangling you from the ropes on top of my 4X4 in Marrakesh, when something amiss catches my eye, and I notice the beginnings of an unraveling hole at your base, and it slowly dawns on me.
Uh… oh.

To my dear old backpack,

You have carried me across the world. No friend, no piece of equipment, no sweater or shoe or hairbrush of mine has seen as much as you have. You first became mine in 2011, when I decided I would be crazy enough to backpack and mountaineer my way through the Andes, and I over-ambitiously hoisted a brand-spanking-new 85-liter bag onto my back. Our first introduction to each other was during those months, and not once did you never let me down. Or let my stuff down. Which is important, too.

My old friend, you saw 35 countries; over half of the amount I’ve been to in my whole life. You saw over 800 miles of deep backcountry, from the tundra of the Arctic to the glaciers of Kilimanjaro. You saw -30 degrees (on multiple occasion), you saw deep, endless jungles (countless times), you’ve been scratched at by bird talons and ice axes and shattered glass and exploded shampoos, and you always survived. You rode on trains through Europe, buses through the Himalayas, were accompanied by chickens, by donkeys, by thousands of suitcases and strollers and packs in the bellies of countless planes. You always showed up, too. Even during delays, through canceled flights, or nine connections, you were always on the other end, waiting patiently at baggage claim. And as the years passed, you became a little less water proof (dropped in Icelandic hot springs or Bolivian rapids too many times), a little more stained (a little orange mud from Uganda here, a little red and purple dye from the Nepal Holi Festival there), a little more frayed (getting caught on train doors and trampled on by passing oxen), and a little more questionably darker (tar from an airplane tarmac maybe? I’m still not sure), but you were tough. You pulled through. You met more boyfriends than my family has, you were a pillow on hard terminal floors, you were a constant, a home, for the past five years of my life. You traveled the world with me. Some people have security blankets or a necklace or a sweater tinted with nostalgia.

I have an old, tired, dusty backpack.

Now you will live out your days in Namibia. Maybe you will be repurposed. Maybe a cat will live inside of you. Maybe you will end up in the Windhoek dump. Or maybe you will stay hidden in the storage closet of my hostel until someone discovers you three years from now, and only then will you be reborn. I don’t know your fate, but I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being a home.

You will be missed. (And, weirdly enough, I really mean that).

Bali & Lombok

Sometimes, I don’t take out my camera.

It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s usually for the same reason, and happens in moments where I might be learning to sauté spices in the middle of a rice terrace, or riding on the back of a motorcycle chasing the evening light through the winding mountain roads, or watching a clownfish swim through my fingers in unfathomably clear turquoise water as I dive beneath the sun-dappled surface of the sea. I think to myself that, to be honest, my entire life revolves around sharing experiences and photographs with thousands of people around the world. Most of the time when I see a spectacular view or find myself in a captivating situation, it’s literally instinctual to take out my camera to capture it, to show others what it looked like. Maybe what it felt like. I live for photographs. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of photographs, and the role they can take on in inspiring others to care about the planet. 

But sometimes, it doesn’t feel right. Take these past few weeks in Indonesia, for example. I've taken photos here, of course, but maybe only one or two in a given situation that I want “the world” to see. I’ve found that while I may capture the view accurately, it’s missing everything else that I associate so strongly with my time here; the smells (of garlic, daun suji, sweet sea air, an oncoming thunderstorm), the sounds (crickets chirping outside my bedroom window, music that has us dancing before we even know what’s happening, rain on the bamboo roof of the verandah, the startled laughter of friends following an eruption of fireworks in the sky during a spontaneous 3 AM swim in the ocean), but mostly, the connections with other travelers, and their voices, their stories, the happenstance of their journeys intertwined with mine. When I take a photo of a hidden bay where we surfed in Lombok or of an evening storm rolling in over the sea from where we sat drinking Bintangs and listening to a band play an acoustic Zeppelin cover, I realize that after taking one picture, then two pictures, that no one will ever be able to feel what I feel in that moment, except for those who are sautéing spices or chasing light or diving beneath the sea’s surface beside me.

I saw. I felt. I felt on an extraordinary, grand, deeply moving scale.

And that’s been Indonesia.

When I planned to go to Indonesia weeks ago, I decided to start with the islands of Lombok, Gili, and Bali, a small chain in the south, each seemingly defined by poignant characteristics: Lombok was for mountain climbing and hidden, pristine coves to surf without anyone else around for miles, Gili was for quiet (no cars or roads) and epic diving and snorkeling (just walk off shore and you’re in the kind of pink and red coral reef we’ve all dreamed of), and of course, Bali was for the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy: high-end shops, yoga studios, and swanky restaurants lining the crowded, resort-toting beaches. While I had a fairly rigid schedule that I wanted to stick to in Indonesia to be sure that I’d see all I wanted to see in such a short amount of time in such a massive country, I quickly realized — about two hours after arriving in Indonesia, to be exact — that my plans were about to change quite a bit.

What’s interesting about Indonesia, more so that most other places I’ve ever traveled, is this incredible sense of camaraderie amongst the backpackers. From the second hour that I arrived in Bali to this very moment (as I write this in the back of a bus, on my way to the Bali harbor to take a boat to Java), my journey has felt like a nonstop collection of new faces, new friends, new stories. To be clear, I tend to be a fairly outgoing person and I’ve made an uncountable amount of friends and connections over the years in my travels, but there is something so vastly different about the kinds of people that go to Indonesia. I was worried that perhaps I’d only run into the classic gap-year types who are traveling to the party islands to abuse their first time being away from home without supervision — such as how it was when I’ve traveled in the past to other classic "party" places such as the Greek islands or the coast of Costa Rica. But instead, I found an enclave of individuals with some of the most epic, humbling stories and backgrounds who have found themselves coming from all walks of life to end up in the jungles of northern Bali or at a small fishing village at the base of the Lombok mountains. The openness of everyone I’ve encountered has been, to be honest, fairly outstanding; there has literally not been a moment until now when I haven’t been in the company of someone — whether it’s the French girl whom I shared sandwiches and compared tattoos and scars with while we waited for our 4-hour-delayed ferry in the shade of a palm tree, or the 60-year-old Australian doctor whom I debated the existence of “free will” with while we split a taxi to the coast, or the French writer I drank coconuts with and dove with sea turtles beside. Or the few who have sincerely become close, lifelong friends; I think they know who they are.

Even in the moments when I felt like I should be frustrated or uncomfortable — such as the 10 hours it took to travel 60 km because of ferry delays and storms and bus breakdowns, or the insane heat and humidity, or the overwhelmingly touristy coast of Bali which felt more like Miami Beach than anywhere in Asia — it was overcome simply by being in the presence of those around me, the camaraderie and the joy and the unabashed excitement everyone I met had for their lives, for their journey, for every bump and delay that came along. Joy is effortless here. With these people, in this place, with the smell of incense on the wind and the comfort of a shoulder to lean on from someone who understands, I’ve been given a gift that this road keeps on giving. Above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for or possibly could have foreseen.

You never know what’s waiting for you out there. 

You just have to be brave enough to step on that plane.

But, it’s not over yet.

In about two hours, I’ll be arriving at the harbor, and will make my way through more boats and buses and maybe a train or two to reach a village nestled high in the Javanese mountains, cradled between two volcanoes I intend to summit over the next week. Still, I already feel nostalgic for everyone I’ve met so far, as we’ve traversed trails that snake along rice paddies, or discovered vine-draped temples, or had some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life (ginger tofu and stir-fried vegetables in small warungs, or freshly-cut sweet watermelon after six hours of surfing to get rid of the salt water on my lips, or spicy roasted street corn on a sunset walk through the village). Sometimes it really is all about the people you encounter.

Thank you all for showing me so much light. 

The world is small when we want it to be.

a moment of transparency in the midst of a dark world

 

I was supposed to go to Indonesia four days ago.

my final group of clients left zambia, and I was supposed to pick myself up and get on a plane bound for asia to begin the second half of my round-the-world trip; the half where I’d be completely solo, where I’d jumping blindly into an incredibly strenuous & complicated trip, in an increasingly unsafe corner of the world. I think you all know me a bit at this point, and I think I’ve drilled it into all of my answered messages over the years that just because bad, scary things happen here and there around the world doesn’t mean that it should inhibit you from traveling & trusting in the goodness and kindness of the majority of people in the world. en yet, in the 24 hours leading up to my departure to indonesia, seven different events of attacks around the world transpired at once and I received about 29 different emails from people telling me to reconsider indonesia and for the first time in ten years, in 66 countries traveled,
I decided not to go.

not indefinitely, though. there were issues I had to deal with in zambia, so it was actually a good excuse to push back my flight to Indonesia for two days to focus on what needed to be dealt with in zambia, and all the while debating whether or not I truly wanted to go to indonesia. I tried not to let emotions play into it; I was already overtly depressed about leaving africa, and tried to think logically instead of emotionally (such as: do I really not want to go to Indonesia for fear of my safety, or is it just that I’d rather stay in cozy, safe, familiar southern Africa?). in the end, I decided to wing it, and I departed livingstone for johannesburg to catch my fight to Doha, then to Jakarta, then to a remote island where I was planning to climb a mountain in only a couple days’ time.

I came to terms with leaving Africa; processed it justly, wrote about it, and felt comfort in the conviction and knowledge that I’d be back next year for several months. this and now was my time for Indonesia. so during my little layover in johannesburg I relaxed, let loose, had two beers with new friends, and walked proudly and capably to the check-in counter to get on my flight, when I found out – long story short – that my tickets were void due to government issues, and there’d be no way I’d get to my flight, and my initial amused/disbelief laugher turned into embarrassing sobs as the reality really hit – I’m not going to Indonesia, I have nowhere to go in Johannesburg, it’s almost midnight, I’m not going to climb the mountain I’d had my heart set on for months, I was finally ready to depart when this happens, what could it possibly mean – but behind all these thoughts there was a part of myself that felt, more than anything, relief.

that night, I ended up at one of Joburg’s best hotels as an early christmas present to myself, where the staff pityingly brought me dinner at 1AM and I tried to facetime and text people but was so tired I was tripping over my words, and sincerely did not care. what mattered was that I was still in south africa, and I kept turning over every moment of the past 3 days in my hands, desperately searching for the reason of why this was happening, why now, and mostly, why never before.

all day today – specifically for the past 13 hours – I’ve been sitting on my fluffy king size bed while researching what to do. road trips through mozambique; three weeks in japan; australia then new zealand; cameroon, maybe even algeria. with every new idea that seemed foolproof – yes! this is it! – i realized about 20 minutes knee-deep into google searches that i simply didn’t know enough. i’d have to make a decision by tomorrow morning, and i didn’t know anything about japan, or cameroon, or new zealand. i’d need weeks, at least, to have any idea of what to do, where to go, what made sense. what i kept coming back to, though, was what i knew. I knew Indonesia.

so it made sense: go to Indonesia. or… go home. right now, those options seem best. yes, I could road trip around mozambique and lesotho and swaziland, but I’ll be back in southern africa next year, and I can do that then when I have time to do it correctly. yes, I could go to japan or fiji or some random place I didn’t think about until a few hours ago, but would my time there be any safer than going to Indonesia? would it be as fulfilling if I went blindly, whereas with Indonesia where I’ve read & poured over every inch of that country for the past six months? every alternative I came up with seemed to point back to the simple truth: I’d decided to go to Indonesia, and the only real other option would be to go home to New York.

depending on the minute, the moment, going to New York sounds like heaven. the thing is, for the past weeks that I’ve been in southern Africa, I’ve been completely enveloped in pure, unadulterated bliss: perfect weather, stunning landscapes, incredible people, and a place that feels more like home to me than anywhere else in the world. even now, as I sit here typing this, it’s a comfortable 60 degrees, I’m freshly showered and my clothes are washed, I’m drinking a wonderful pinot that reminds me of the great wines I have in New York, the wifi is the fastest it’s been in months, and I’m comfortable, happy, and safe.

going home to new york would the continuation of that: comfort, and perceived safety.

going to indonesia would be the beginning of 5 weeks of absolute chaos, heat, long bus rides, unknown people, unknown places, confusing logistics, massive remote mountains i feel inclined to summit, humidity, travelers sickness from bad water and unclean foods, and mostly, a deep, perceived fear of the state of the world.

but here’s the thing.

I could go to new york tomorrow instead of indonesia, and I could be killed by a drunk driver or a moose on a country road.

people keep telling me to be “aware” and “afraid” of Indonesia and the radicalization and threats – they constantly question the audacity I have to be traveling there during such a time of turmoil around the world – but no one tells me to afraid of night clubs in florida, or of train stations in belgium. the other day my father angrily texted me saying “where are you going after Indonesia? Baghdad? Syria?” and I wanted to text him back asking him to use the same logic; when he was planning to forego all his business in Florida, or in Paris?

what I’m trying to say to you all, is that fear is a very real and very credible thing. we live in a media-centric society where we are constantly bombarded with headlines that terrify us. I have probably received close to 300 messages in the past year alone from readers telling me that they’re afraid to travel because of this big, bad world, and while I’ve always told you all that for every evil person there are a million kind ones – and I stick with this statement – I want you all to know that fear hits me sometimes, too. and as I’m at this crossroad, it’s hitting me sincerely and deeply now more than ever. 

but the world is good, and kind, and it’s waiting for us.

if we choose to be bystanders, to live in the perceived safety of home, we will miss out on a glorious world that’s just waiting to be discovered. there are life-changing people I’m on the trajectory to meet, phenomenally beautiful places I’m waiting to see, significant memories that are waiting to be made, and I can’t wait to discover them, if only I’m brave. and in all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve always known that the greatest moments, people, and places come to me when I’m out there, on the road, letting the world unfold before me. it’s an extraordinary world, a massive world, and we cannot let fear hold us back.

And so, my friends,

I’m going to Indonesia.

I hope you will all find your Indonesia’s.

And I hope you will go there, too.

“There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead. 

This is the kind of passionate conviction that sparks romances, wins battles, and drives people to pursue dreams others wouldn’t dare.

Belief in ourselves and in what is right catapults us over hurdles,

and our lives unfold.”

on wanting to stay & knowing to go

When I was a teenager, I was hiking down a rocky trail on a small mountain in northern Tanzania when I tripped and landed straight on a tangle of acacia branches (from the kind of tree that I lovingly call “the Lion King tree”; those crooked, beautiful ones with the branches covered in ivory-colored thorns that you see in every African postcard or film). When I fell, my hand landed straight on top of the tangle of the thorns, and the tip of one pricked the palm of my right hand at such an angle that I couldn’t get it out, and before I could get back to a city to buy a pair of tweezers to try to remove the splinter, my hand heeled over the wound, and the tip of the acacia thorn settled into its permanent state: a small, gray mark on the palm of my hand.

I always think about it like this: I carry Africa with me. It’s often just a story or conversation starter when I’m with friends and we’re comparing scars — “you see that spot on my hand? well this one time when I was super clumsy in Tanzania…” — but I admit there’s a tiny, strange, sentimental value to it. During the times when I’m homesick for the savanna, I think about how I hold a bit of it to keep me grounded when I'm thousands of miles away. A small mark that I can run my finger over to remind myself that I’m never that far from home. I can always go. And when I leave, it's a reminder that I will always find a way to come back. I always do.

It’s been almost two months since I began my journey around the world, and as my last day in Africa comes to an end, I would be lying if I said I was ready to leave. In fact, for the past few days, I almost desperately wished I wasn’t.

From the glaciers of Peru, to the markets of Morocco, to the green hills of Ethiopia, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel like I was biding my time until I made it back to the golden, sun-soaked savannas of subsaharan Africa.

So as the plane descended through the clouds and skimmed over the orange mountains of Namibia, I could feel an odd sensation of relief wash over me; the kind of relief you get after you arrive home and see a familiar face waiting for you at the arrivals terminal. I’ve spent a good amount of time in this region of Africa over the years, but still, the familiarity and comfort that these mountains and plains brings when I see them again is always profound. Since my first trip here, I wondered if over time its significance would fade, and if there would come a time when I’d visit and find that it’s not as hard to leave as it was when I first was here. And yet, I find the opposite happening. With each visit, the intensity of homesickness that hits me when I’m getting ready to leave becomes more poignant and significantly more difficult to deal with. The thought of the Johannesburg Departures terminal, of returning to paved roads and telephone poles after weeks of camping in the wilderness, of a room where I can’t hear the crickets and the elephants as I fall asleep at night, ties my stomach in knots. Coming home to the savannas gives me a sense of bliss that’s more brilliant and raw than anywhere I go or have ever been, but when the time comes to leave, I find myself as I am now, at a cafe in Zambia, drinking an espresso that doesn’t taste nearly as decadent as the instant-coffee brewed over a campfire that I’ve lived off of for the past few weeks, wondering why I’m leaving. It’s almost painful to think about how happy I am here, and yet I decided to buy a plane ticket to Asia that leaves in less than 24 hours, and something in me wishes that this time, I would have decided to just stay. It’s as simple and honest as that.

This visit in particular has been difficult to put into words, as whatever I muster up always fails to properly convey how wonderful this experience has been. I’ll start with this, though: every day of my time here was extraordinary.

We began in Namibia, making our way from the capital city to the desert of Namib-Naukluft, where we bribed our way into the park in the middle of the night to climb the world's tallest dunes at sunrise, and hiked to white salt pans and oceans of dry earth in an abyss of red sand, where ancient, crooked trees shaded herds of gemsbok. From Namibia we watched the desert turn into autumn forests then, slowly, to rolling plains decorated with villages and lazy zebra as we reached Botswana, making our way north until we ditched roads and towns for deep savanna, camping alone with prides of lions and the company of each other, not needing anything else. Finally we reached Zambia, where we were greeted by the thundering Victoria Falls, traversing the rim as we were doused by roaring water, loud enough that we could scream without anyone hearing, baboons watching from the canopies nearby. Every morning and evening was laced with joy and adrenaline; constantly enamored by every passing moment. Part of why I love guiding these expeditions is to see people who’ve never been to this corner of the world before see an elephant for the first time, or a giraffe, or a sunset from atop a dusty Land Rover, and to witness that kind of child-like captivation and glee as it unfolds across the faces of those around me.

On our final night all together, as we sat under a flowering tree listening to the hum of Livingstone beyond the garden hedges, we began talking about everything we’re going to miss. Like those lovely, long mornings with amber light dousing the golden plains, sipping a cup of coffee with a rusk under the crooked shadows of acacia trees. The smell of the riverfront as you cross the veld; the smell of sage, sun-warmed earth, sweet grass. The sun dapples on the navy-blue ponds that sable antelope and zebra linger by, pinpricked by white cranes and hippos. Those sunsets, with spectacular ribbons of mauve, of burgundy, wrapping around the silhouettes of elephants bathing at the watering hole and a swollen, deeply red sun that just seems to beckon you to come closer. The electricity of the night air deep in the bush; of sitting by a simmering campfire in the evening, woodsmoke tangled in our hair and knotted into our sweaters; rooibos tea and deep, belly-aching, honest laughter ringing against the backdrop of crickets chirping and lions calling from just out of eyesight, only ten or twenty meters from where we sit in the center of darkness. The stomach-flipping adrenaline-coursing dip of a bush plane as it careens towards a herd of elephants grazing beside the delta at sunset. The way the acacia trees flicker with red as they reflect the campfire flames underneath a spectacular Milky Way. The singsong language of Tswana, and the nights sitting at camp playing music while we lost track of shooting stars. Waking up at 2 AM to lions pawing beside my tent, and yet feeling safer there than on some streets back in San Francisco. The fact that there was no road, no telephone pole, no bar of cell service for 100 miles; no possible way to be anywhere but there, in the heart of it, at the most honest and beautiful and true the world can be.

I feel home there, in my bones, in the red dust on my shoulders and palms.

It’s so hard to leave.

Then, today. It feels strange to be sitting by myself right now, without people chatting and swapping stories and cracking each other up on either side of me, as its been for the past couple months.

About three minutes ago, a British Airways flight took off from Livingstone to South Africa, carrying my final clients with it — people who’ve become good friends — and concluding my last photography expedition of the year. Already talk of 2017 is floating through the air and my email inbox — essentially asking the beautiful question of where I want to go, and even though nothing has been decided, already in the back of my mind I’m counting down the days until I land in Namibia again. But for this remainder of this round-the-world, I realize that from here on out it’s me on my own, as tomorrow I face Asia and wherever else and whomever else I’m on the trajectory to cross paths with. The unknown of that is part of what makes this kind of travel so rich, so rewarding, so endlessly inspiring, and why I will continue to revolve my life around the pursuit of discovery. Life should be felt, should be about color, about the world. For me, that involves the road, and that involves being brave enough to trust in the unknown of Indonesia, to give up Africa because I know I always find a way to come home, and I will. Maybe next year I'll spend a few months here; in the savanna with a tent, a Landy, some instant coffee, and good company. Right now, though, it's time to go, and to trust in the possibility of something else. Something more.

This round-the-world has woken me up from the stiffness that a clockwork life drilled into me. It’s brought me an incredible amount of joy and opportunities and sincere, overwhelming happiness. But now, as a plane ticket looms tomorrow to carry me across the world to Indonesia, I can’t help but feel this daunting, unshakeable sensation that while one chapter in this RTW is closing — especially mixed with the hesitation and sadness of leaving this part of Africa — I know that there is something massive and important waiting for me in Asia, and beyond, wherever I end up. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m ready to face it head on. 

I carry Africa with me, always, and will be home soon.

Let's see what's out there.

Indonesia’s waiting.

shifts in perspective

 shifts that come in the form of compassion; in the form of Moroccan mint tea

When I think of my first visit to Morocco years ago, I remember spices.

I remember gloriously orange, sun-burnt hills. I remember the morning when a stranger handed me a cup of warm mint tea as his way of saying “welcome”, and the wind was just cool enough to raise the hairs on my arms, and a sense of relief and calm washed over me.

I remember the important bits. The romantic bits. The good bits. I know that memory distorts reality, it fades difficult moments, and most significantly, it embellishes. En yet, my memories of Morocco were rich and warm and deeply provocative, reminding me of a time when I felt like the world was at my finger tips, overcome with a sense of possibility and opportunity; where I constantly found inspiration around every cobblestone bend in an old market alleyway.

Even when I was standing across from a woman at a dinner party about two months prior to the beginning of my current round-the-world trip, who told me about how difficult and dangerous and atrocious Morocco is — despite me telling her that I had already spent time there and was extremely fond of it — I couldn’t shake the wonder of why so many people I’d known, including this woman, had such obviously negative experiences in the same small nation in North Africa. When I personally thought of Morocco, I only conjured memories of honey, of figs, of the poetic flow of Arabic, of laying under the Milky Way with a soft layer of Sahara dust on my bare shoulders.

But then I remembered everything I thought I had left in the past. And it took me standing in the central fish market of Tangier two weeks ago for me to suddenly remember.

Morocco is not an easy place to travel. It is simply not an easy place to be.

As a photojournalist, I think I’ve taken some of my best photographs in Morocco. Through the lens of a clouded memory where I only saw Morocco through the handful of snapshots I’d taken years ago, I’d forgotten about the exhausting bits, the difficult bits, of being a woman traveling in Morocco. When I decided to revisit the country on this round-the-world, I was naturally curious to see how my second time around would be different than the first. Morocco was always held to such a perfect standard in my mind. Which, I guess, is always an issue that’s faced when anyone revisits locations (comparison will kill you, so they say), and because I’d been warned so many times by various travelers before my revisit to be careful, I was ready, and a bit nervous, to see what would unfold. How Morocco would present itself this time when I was the leader, I was the guardian, I was the one to show an experience to a group of first-time-to-Africa travelers that would, hopefully, inspire them like Morocco had inspired me.

But upon arrival, upon the first hour I entered Tangier’s crooked streets, my reintroduction to Morocco was anything but. Slurs were flung at me left and right, aggression was abound, stomach-churning cat-calls that I’d forgotten about suddenly came right back, and something clicked in my memory, and as I stood there in that hazy fading light, I thought, “Oh. Oh, right. I forgot about this part.”

The challenges didn’t diminish. If anything, over the course of my time there, more distinct hardships presented themselves. The repetitive food, extraordinary heat, and local aggression were the worst offenders, and I watched as people struggled to understand this country, this place they’d decided to visit, which turned out to be harsh and hot and poignantly hard. And I understood what they were going through. With the weight of everything that makes Morocco challenging on your shoulders, sometimes you look at those gloriously orange sun-burnt hills you’d been so excited to finally see in person and you realize with a sort of sober melancholy that maybe they are just brown.

Someone asked me the other day what advice I would give to someone looking to travel to Morocco, and after thinking about this for awhile, I’ve thought of two.

1. Leave your preconceptions, projections, and biases at home.

With its colorful tiled mosques glinting in evening light, massive ornate doorways, vibrant tapestries on turquoise streets, decadent-looking towers of freshly baked breads, it’s clear why photographers have poured over Morocco for decades, and why so many seek out an opportunity to photograph it themselves. (Insert me raising my hand here). En yet — and I think this is more true in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve ever been — for every profound image you may see of Morocco on social media or in a National Geographic magazine, you don’t see the thousands of missed-moments and almost-had-it’s where the photographer is chased away from a market scene by a lady wielding a stick, or the photographer returning to her room to stay inside for the rest of the day because of the exhaustion of being consistently objectified by men on the sidewalks. Morocco doesn’t hand out gifts if you don’t work for them. It does not offer you an easy pass simply because you’re a young, eager photographer. And most importantly, Morocco does not owe us anything. I’ve found that when someone does capture a great image in Morocco, it’s usually one that’s filled with emotion, light, color, a fleeting moment that’s then gone. And then it may be another week, or two, or thirty, until another brilliant image unfolds before them again. In Morocco, these fantastical moments don’t pour into our peripheral as easily as most other places in the world, because we have to work for it, and we have to respect Morocco enough to appreciate the challenge and the push to constantly fight to succeed. To keep trying. To keep seeking, to shake off the dust of missed moments and discouragement and doubt, no matter what.

This even applies if one isn’t a photographer and is simply traveling through. By constantly pushing against Morocco — complaining about the food, the heat, the traffic laws, the smells — Morocco pushes back, and before you know it, you’ve left the country with a massive barrier built between you and the nation. For every moment you want to fight Morocco for being Morocco, the barrier grows bigger, creating such an obvious tension and disdain for the country that you end each day feeling frustrated, closed off, and leaving wondering what possibly went wrong. Morocco wasn’t supposed to be like this; it wasn't supposed to be this hard.

But Morocco can be whatever it damn well pleases. When we are guests in someone else’s home, we must adhere to their ways, we must accept and recognize our privilege when facing situations that we may personally find abhorrently difficult. I’m not saying you have to leave Morocco feeling like it’s your favorite country. I’m not even saying you have to like it. But you must accept it, you must recognize your preconceptions and ideals that are preventing you from truly seeing the beautiful underbelly of Morocco, and you must know that you can wish and wish and wish that Morocco turns into the Morocco you’d always dreamed of, but if you don’t first acknowledge that Morocco may not be what you thought it was, you’ll never allow yourself the have the capacity to recognize that it’s just something different, not bad. Or, as I've found, something great.

2. Be receptive, and never stop seeking the good.

When you travel in a country that seems to hand you challenges again and again and again, especially when you think you can’t possibly hold any more, it’s easy to find the temporary bandaid solution: put up your blinders, keep your eyes down, blame the country and its people for ruining what should have been an easy vacation. I understand this; I’ve struggled with it myself in the corners of the world I’ve felt most unwelcome. It’s easy to point fingers at strangers and to blame your surroundings rather than recognize that you are the foreigner in a far-off place where life is different, and beliefs are different, and you are not entitled to think that you deserve any kind of special treatment or painless travel just because you actively chose, and spent the money, to be there. Being a visitor doesn’t mean we have a right to decide how a country is or should be. It is what it is. We must seek and appreciate that.

And finally, with blinders up, it’s impossible to see the good, and Morocco has so much good. For every challenge Morocco presents, something beautiful presents itself as well. For every angry stare or taunt in an overcrowded market, there’s someone shaking your hand with a genuine gusto, welcoming you deeply and sincerely to their country; who will teach you the constellations and tell you stories of their grandfather trekking through the Sahara over a cup of homemade mint tea. For every meal that tastes like countless others, there are just as many wonderfully decadent dishes; tastes of caramelized onions in a French-Moroccan stew, of complex spices toasting over a fire, of orange juice squeezed minutes before. For every dusty bus ride and broken AC, there are clear nights that are cool and quiet, paired with the perfect relief of a warm shower and clean clothes and the breeze of a rooftop restaurant in Chefchauen or under the stars of the Sahara; watching the setting sun glimmer on the tiles of mosques, the cacophony of the Call to Prayer echoing around you.

I’ve seen, countless times, people grow jaded by the hard bits, which blinds them to the beautiful bits. It’s hard to actively seek these moments and to recognize their kindness and softness when it feels like rest of the country has made you hard. But for someone willing to travel to Morocco, they must be aware that there are treasures to be discovered if they’re willing and ready to find them. They are there. I promise, they are there.

Travel to Morocco, but take an open heart with you. If you do, then you will sit on a rooftop with a cup of tea in hand, and you will watch those brown hills quietly fade into that glorious sun-burnt orange. The one you were looking for.

Peru

the first stop on a journey around the world

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at a cafe overlooking the main historic square of Cusco, Peru. It feels remarkably quiet compared to the past few weeks, as all the clients I’d been guiding across the Andes, the Sacred Valley, the Amazon, have all gone back to the United States this morning. This leaves me here, with a strong espresso and a bar of cacao I picked up on my way out of the Amazon this morning, nestling into the warm sun and welcome quiet like an exhausted trekker nestles into their sleeping bag at the end of an especially exerting day. I’m comfortable and aching with a special kind of tired, there’s a slight breeze rolling down the golden hills beyond Cusco’s cathedral, so now’s as good a time as any to write.

I first went to Peru when I was barely out of high school. I somehow mustered the gumption to give a go at a mountaineering-based expedition that snaked along the glacier-cracked spine of the Andes for four months, and even though I was extremely unsure of myself and that decision, my time in South America ended up being a cornerstone for my passion towards mountaineering and the unusually glorifying sensation of spending months at a time carrying everything I needed in a beaten-up backpack on my sunburned – sometimes frostbitten – shoulders. I was so captivated by the blue balconies of Cusco, the cobblestone streets and Incan flute music of the Sacred Valley, the cascading glaciers tumbling down to the Andean highlands with their emerald green lakes, that for years after my first visit to Peru, I always revered it as one of the most enchanting places I’d ever been.

And so, last year when I was offered to lead a photography expedition in Peru — with the freedom to build my own itinerary based on what I think must be done in Peru in two weeks’ time — I took the chance, curious how it would unfold.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the weeks before returning to Peru. My first visit, while captivating, was tainted with extraneous circumstances that made that experience particularly challenging, and while I was excited, I wasn’t sure how especially different or unique this time around would be.

En yet, from the moment my plane touched down in Cusco almost three weeks ago now, an enormous sensation of deja vu washed over me. Even walking through the twisted alleys of the ancient city I was overwhelmed with familiarity; the ability to recognize landmarks and street corners and benches that were tied with memories; I was caught in the rain there; I tried my first cuy here; I spent hours there waiting for the sunset. Instantly, I was taken aback by the way in which Peru flooded my heart, it somehow feeling more comforting and familiar than it was when I had spent months there prior. Trying to figure out why this time was different, I realized it’s because this time, I was free to make Peru mine, to do everything I felt I’d immensely missed out on last time I’d been there.

So I did, and Peru opened up in front of us.

From the moment my clients arrived to the moment that I type this, Peru presented its beauty in a way I’d never seen it before. We followed the music and parades across the cobblestone squares of Cusco, photographing the festivals and markets with their rich colors of reds tapestries, vibrant fruits, smoky golden lights. We saw Machu Picchu, and were actually the first of thousands of people to see the ancient kingdom emerge as the clouds cleared at sunrise, and to be honest, it was indescribably more spectacular than what I had remembered (maybe it was the deep navy blues and the streams of light beaming on the tumbling ruins, or maybe it was just the people I was with). We rode trains alongside rivers swollen with rapids, we ate warm chocolate in the shadows of cathedrals, we rode horseback to high vistas overlooking deep, terraced valleys. We traveled across the nation to the Amazon, where we swung on hammocks beneath tangled canopies, fell asleep to the sounds of rain on thatched roofs and monkeys screeching from just outside our bungalow windows, ate fresh fruit picked from the trees in the backyard after learning about medicinal plants from an Amazonian shaman, or watching caymans and birds in the river as the sun — swollen and deeply red — sunk below the horizon.

En yet, the most powerful and most significant moment of my time in Peru — and perhaps of all the time I've ever spent in South America — unfolded in a small village at about 15,000 ft, nestled at the base of the Ausangate Mountain in the high Andes. We drove, then trekked, for hours to this remote corner of the mountains, placed thousands of feet above the tree line where the oxygen was so thin that it was impossible to walk a few meters at an incline without a severe burning sensation emerging underneath your ribs. We were welcomed into the home of a local family who fed us soups heavy with potatoes and quinoa, plates upon plates of rice and cups of steaming hot mate de coca in their dining room, thick with the smell of woodsmoke and blustery mountain air blowing in through the cracked windows. As evening settled, we watched the grandiosely massive peaks have their glaciers illuminate in mauve sunset light, then eventually braved the sub-zero temperatures to dive into hot springs of natural thermal waters, steaming and bubbling and enveloping us in glorious warmth as the rest of the world froze and the sky above us shifted into an impossibly clear display of the Milky Way. In the springs that night, alone with those people, under those stars in the Andes, is a moment I know in my heart of hearts that I will never lose or forget for as long as I live.

The rest of our time in Andes was spent climbing higher and higher into the peaks, traversing lakes of green and turquoise, sparkling in that gloriously high sun, reflecting glaciers and herds of curious alpaca. Rambling creeks and crumbling stone walls suggesting past villages, and of course, the best possible lunches (guacamole made then-and-there, eaten on fresh bread we picked up from a bakery down in the valley).

Usually when I’m about to leave a place, I’m ready to go. I can be nostalgic about it, of course, but typically, I’m ready to move on. But landing back into Cusco today from the Amazon, my knees bruised from miles trekked, my bag dusty, and my nose freckled from weeks under the high sun, there is genuinely nothing more I want in my heart than to keep going into the mountains, to be on those glaciers again.

But it’s time to move on. Just a few more days to soak in all that is Peru, all that Peru is, and the onto the next stop on this round-the-world journey; Morocco.

Entonces, hasta la próxima vez.

Cuídate.

San Francisco Highlights & Master Post

Two weeks from Monday, I leave for a four month round-the-world trip, and in the middle of panicking about finishing up 100 work projects while simultaneously preparing for my departure, you know what happens?

Well, let's just say an emergency surgery and lots of bed rest happens. Naturally.

However, on the plus side, all this down-time has given me lots of time for self reflection; such as, wow, I haven't posted on my blog in awhile. And so, in my half-delirium this morning, I decided to finally put together a post that a lot of you have asked for: San Francisco.

After living here for 2.5 years and the finish line sorta-kinda appearing in sight, I figure now's as good a time as any to talk about my personal favorite highlights and must do's/eat's/stay's/hikes in San Francisco. Consider it an homage to this gem in Northern California. Consider it a comprehensive list of places you're most likely to find me on any given afternoon.

& Enjoy.

Here's my San Francisco.

Fort Funston, San Francisco.

Fort Funston, San Francisco.

Favorite Eats:

  • Ferry Building farmers’ market (saturdays, 8 am - 2 pm): get the best donuts of your life at Pepple’s Donut stand, sample hundreds of different baked goods and hummuses and fresh jams, not to mention tons of food stalls both inside the ferry building & all around outside. Go hungry and ignore your bank account.
  • The Slanted Door: top-notch Vietnamese food right on the water with spectacular bay views, with a very upscale vibe that feels like it belongs more in New York or London.
  • Sourdough from Boudin: listen, I know it’s touristy, but if you don’t have sourdough while in SF, you’re sincerely missing out
  • Gracias Madre and Puerto Alegre: two of the best Mexican spots in the city, bar none
  • The Plant Cafe: lots of locations throughout the city but the best is on the Embarcadero. Sit outside on a warm weekend morning for brunch.
  • Hakkasan: upscale cantonese spot in the financial district (I’ve been to their London location, it’s top notch).
  • Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: in Little Italy; won best margarita pizza in the world several years in a row at a competition held annually in Tuscany
  • Delfina: fabulous Italian food with great wine selection, out of the way of annoying tourist areas
  • Holy Gelato and Smitten: the best ice creams in the city (holy gelato happens to have 20 vegan flavors by the way, though Smitten has a few vegan options, but it has a crazy line most days- for good reason tho)
  • Millennium: okay this one’s in Oakland but is my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area, so if you’re keen to try some of the best vegan food in the country (literally, as ranked by the New York Times) then it’s worth the 15 mins on BART; also the neighborhood it’s in is lovely
  • Crepevine: cheap, hearty brunch with heavy-handed mimosas
  • Louis’ Restaurant: an SF institution that’s 100% more sentimental to me than it is good; it’s your typical diner fare but has sweeping 360 degree views of the ocean and Sutro Baths (so stop here for lunch or breakfast if you’re in the area). Really nice on chilly, gray days when you’re in the mood to look pensively over the ocean with a cup of coffee.
  • Underdog: if you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park and have a hankering for something cheap, fast, delicious, and portable, get a giant organic hot dog with all the best fixins (including several vegan dogs and vegan potato salad / mac & cheese)
  • Lime Tree: literal hole-in-the-wall in the Inner Sunset that serves the best Indonesian food I’ve ever had in my life. You’re paying nickels and the owners are remarkably friendly; truly feels like you’re in Southeast Asia. Get the curried noodles and then go to heaven
  • Aziza: high end michelin-star Moroccan food
  • Shizen: hands down the BEST sushi I’ve ever had in my life. absolutely phenomenal, and I don’t say that lightly. indulge here then stroll to Cream across the street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich between two fudgy warm cookies for dessert.

Favorite Coffee Shops:

  • Cafe St Jorge: definitely not the most accessible place if you’re not in the neighborhood, but absolutely worth the time to get there. dozens of the best cookies/muffins/cakes/breads you’ll have in the city, and the coffee is wonderful, the atmosphere is beautiful and lovely, and the entire place is unpretentious which is super refreshing in SF. A good homework/writing/reading spot to buckle down in for a few hours.
  • Four Barrel: a classic, but a must; there’s a reason why we’re famous for our coffee. however, I say skip the pour-over and get their almond milk latte instead. out of this world
  • Blue Bottle: because you’re in SF, and people will literally get mad at you if you don’t try Blue Bottle coffee.
  • Samovar: okay, this is a tea lounge, but is so wonderful & chill & and the tea selections are out of this world. awesome for a rainy afternoon; they have snacks and small plates, too.
  • Java Beach Cafeif you’re a student or a work-from-anywhere type, bring your books here and tuck in with a hummus bagel and organic dark french roast, then stroll to the ocean 10 yards from the outdoor patio
  • Black Point Cafe: charming spot next to Ghirardelli square, so a good spot to pause and recharge when you’re on your tourist route near fishermans’ wharf. their lavender latte is especially delicious.

Favorite Bars:

  • Press Club: extremely attractive & classy wine bar downtown, absolutely perfect for when you’re in the mood to get a bit dressed up and be transported to midtown Manhattan or central London. Lengthy and interesting wine selections with a knowledgable staff, and prices aren’t outrageous considering the dress and location. 
  • The Barrel Room: also downtown, much smaller wine bar with just as many great wines; great for if Press Club has an insane wait. Good for when you just want to hunker down with a book or have a conversation where, you know, you can hear the other person.
  • Wayfare Tavern: fabulous cocktails, exposed log beams, and a roaring fireplace; feels like you’re in a cozy, classy, antique lounge in Edinburgh.
  • Beach Chalet: a hidden gem for sure, only really known to surfers and locals who live in the neighborhood. It’s a restaurant right across the ocean and on the corner of Golden Gate Park; have a house-made brew in the back garden/patio then dinner upstairs overlooking the Pacific, then walk across the street to the beach to catch the sunset. Don’t forget to check out the tulip gardens and old windmill!
  • Local Edition: ignore its weird eclectic design and focus on the drinks; some of the best cocktails in SF
  • Biergarten: for warm lazy weekday evenings (you’ll never find a seat on a weekend evening, be forewarned); totally outdoors and German-styled, where you sit elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors at picnic tables under hanging lights.
  • 21st Amendment: local brewery, a bit of a sports bar vibe but their beer is some of the best in the city (get their “hell or high watermelon” and thank me later)
  • Top of the Mark: get there early to grab a seat by the window to watch the sunset from one of the highest points in SF. Drinks are overpriced but, for that view, you pay for what you get…
  • Techo de Lolinda: one of the few rooftop bars in SF, with fireplaces and heat lamps and strung up lights. Expect long waits on weekends but worth it on a warm evening.
  • Hopwater Distribution: a classic charming spot for the beer lover, with plenty of room and over 30 beers on top (with 200+ bottles to choose from if you want to be that guy)

Favorite Ways to Spend an SF Day:

  • Embarcadero walk: eat your heart out at the Ferry Building (try to see the farmers market if you’re there on a saturday), then walk along sunny Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, stopping to visit the sea lions and getting sourdough at Boudin; lay in the grass in Ghirardelli Square, then continue walking towards the Presidio to catch the sunset and epic views of the Golden Gate from the high-end shops of the Marina and Crissy Field (this entire walk is just gorgeous)
  • Museums: the deYoung is a mustLegion of Honor will take your breath away, and now the SFMoMa!
  • Golden Gate Park: stroll through the botanical gardens, the conservancy of the flowers, the Academy of the Sciences, the Japanese tea garden, walk through wildflower-lined paths surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus groves that lead to quiet meadows and ponds, and rent a boat to paddle around Stow Lake on a warm afternoon. Oh, and don’t miss the 3-day-long free concert Hardly Strictly Bluegrass if you’re here in October.
  • Presidio, Palace of Fine Arts, and Baker Beach: The Presidio is great day hike to explore all the winding paths and parks that lead to hidden vistas of the sweeping skyline; end with a late afternoon gaze up at the high Roman domes and statues at the Palace of Fine Arts, and catch the sunset against the Golden Gate at Baker Beach.
  • North Beach and China Town: for the finest Italian food, espressos, and City Lights Bookstore, then remarkably cheap and divine dumplings under the hanging street lamps of eclectic China Town.
  • Lands End: a park literally at the edge of the world. quiet and stunning and hovering in the trees above Sutro Baths. You can also fairly easily reach the Legion of Honor from here too, so consider doing this all in one loop.
  • Explore the oddities and curio shops in the Mission and Hayes valley (a little too hipster for me – actually uncomfortably hipster – but a must-do if you’re in town). The thrift stores, street art, vegan eateries, and artisan chocolate shops feels a little like a mini-Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This area also comes alive at night with its rooftop bars (such as Techo de Lolinda) and iconic Dolores Park which sometimes shows outdoor movies.
  • Have a bonfire on Ocean Beach, and do your best to spot dolphins and whales from where you lay in the sand.

Favorite Day Trips & Weekend Trips (from shortest to longest)

  • Marin County and Redwood Forest: if you have the ability to rent a car (or are willing to brave the tourist buses that pick up/drop off in downtown SF so you don’t have to worry about parking), go to the Muir Woods to see one of the most gloriously beautiful redwood forests on the planet (just go super early!). Then pause at Muir Beach to dip your toes in the water, and if you want, keep on driving along Highway 1 to Stinson Beach and/or Bolinas for dinner and epic SF views (charming little surf beach towns that feel like they’re a million miles away). If you want to make this a weekend trip, spend a couple nights camping and backpacking at nearby Point Reyes.
  • Tiburon & Angel Island: take the ferry from either Tiburon or San Francisco to Angel Island to hike to the summit of the island (around 2-3 hours) for absolutely stunning views of the ENTIRE bay area; you’ll hike through fields of wildflowers, eucalyptus groves, and be treated with remarkably few other people as lots of folks don’t realize this is even a thing.
  • Pacifica, Pescadero, Half Moon Bay: Easily a day trip (or even half-day trip) if you have a rental car, these three towns are adorable beyond words. Pacifica is a mere 10 minute drive down the coast, then Half Moon Bay is about 10-15 minutes from there, then Pescadero is just another thirty minutes south. You’ll pass quaint lighthouses surrounded by fields of wildflowers and berries, rolling mountains tangled in vineyards and forests and farm pastures, steep, jagged cliffs cascading into the ocean. Go antique shopping in the sleepy towns, and if you’re around in the summer, go berry picking at Swanton Berry Farm near Pescadero, and have a picnic lunch on a hike or at the Half Moon Bay Brewery, with sweeping views of the ocean and hills. Just be back in Pacifica in time for dinner at Moonraker, where the floor-to-ceiling windows fall sheerly into the ocean, the farm-to-table food captivates you, and the sunsets will take your breath away. Live your California-road-trip-down-the-coast dreams.
  • PetalumaPetaluma is a great day trip just for the sake of awesome antiquing in downtown Petaluma and getting the beer sampler at Lagunitas Brewery. A nice way to see the Napa-area without going to the overwhelming tourist hole that is Napa itself.
  • Mendocino: a weekend trip for sure, but a lovely getaway drive up the PCH to a stunning oceanside town where I stayed at the best bed & breakfast of my life (Stanford Inn by the Sea). Kayak and bike your heart out.
  • Lake Tahoe: okay, this one you have to get to with your own car or rental, but, it’s merely 2.5 hours away, and do not miss it if you can.
  • Big Sur: a weekend getaway, roughly 3 hours, just bring your own tent if you don’t want to pay for expensive AirBnB’s and hostels.
  • Yosemite: easily reachable by car (3 hours) or by tourist bus that’ll pick you up downtown. No excuse. You’ve gotta go. (If you’re camping though, make reservations ahead of time).
Mori Point, Pacifica

Mori Point, Pacifica

Best Time to Go:

San Francisco’s summer truly peaks in late September / early October; it’s when the temps are at their balmiest (which is still just a mere 70-80*F) and when the fog is most tame. But you really can’t go wrong; the wildflowers are at their peak bloom in March and April, and the mountains & hills at their greenest in February and March (which also tends to mean the most rain). The weather shifts dramatically though so there’s no real telling how the temps will be; just pick a month and know it was luck of the draw.

Best Place to Stay:

I may be a bit spoiled by New York City standards, but San Francisco has notoriously the worst public transport system of any city developed to this high of caliber (I mean, come on, it shouldn’t take 50 minutes to travel 4 miles via bus). So I recommend staying somewhere relatively central/downtown, such as:

or, stay with me. Or, AirBNB-it. This is the AirBNB capital, after all.

Enjoy SF! Eat a lot, complain about housing prices, spend every evening catching a sunset, and you'll fit right in.

How to Make Money While Traveling (and therefore travel indefinitely)

At a seaside bar in Mykonos, there's the typical conversation. Travelers are two beers deep and are swapping stories about how long they've been in Greece, which leads to how long they've been in Europe, and then how long they've been on the road, period. It used to surprise me how there was always one person, without fail, who'd been traveling for well over two years, with no real intention or need to stop and return to "real life." It just didn't seem possible that someone could travel for that long — essentially indefinitely — and find ways to make enough money to keep going, and keep seeing the world. And here's the thing: these people rarely had extraordinary, dreamy, high-paying travel jobs. They weren't professional travel photographers or travel bloggers, paid to galavant the globe and show people at home what it's like to see the mountains of Tibet or the temples of Bangkok. They were just average people with typical skill-sets who wanted to travel, and who found ways to make it sustainable. 

The surprising thing about this way of life, though, is that it isn't a necessarily difficult or rare phenomenon. The more I traveled myself, the more I met people who — just like so many others — decided to spend however-many-years exploring the planet, and shared with me their own ways of keeping themselves afloat. As I started traveling on more long-term trips, I began utilizing these methods and finding my own ways of earning money to see the world (namely through photography and writing). But it was amazing to see just how quickly money added up when picking up odd jobs or putting in the extra effort to earn my keep on the road. So now, the idea of traveling for 1+ years doesn't seem like a pipe dream, but instead something that's absolutely attainable for those of us out there who want to see the world for years at a time but are scared of the daunting $$$ factor. (I mean, who wouldn't be?)

So that's where this list comes in. I've compiled all the ways any average person can make money and sustainably travel for extended periods of time. You don't have to build a lucrative travel blog or be the next big Instagram travel documentarian. You just have to get ready to be creative, put in some elbow grease, and the world is yours.

Me in Namibia

Me in Namibia

Work at a Hostel

More often than not, hostels are absolutely willing to hire travelers to help out in exchange for free board, food, and pay. It's worth asking around at the hostels that are in an area you wouldn't mind hanging out in for awhile, and see who has the best offer. In some cases, hostels have been know to milk it and won't pay staff that's just traveling through, but even if it's not paid, it's a good opportunity to lay low for awhile, save money, and focus on other ways to earn cash.
 

Find Seasonal Work

Earn your keep by picking fruits, vegetables, or flowers at farms that need a hand. You can do research locally once you arrive, or see what's available from the comfort of your laptop on www.PickingJobs.com or www.Workaway.info

Tutor or Teach English

Put up ads and fliers in coffee shops, markets, hostels, and online, and offer what you can: tutoring in your native language, or on a subject you're well versed in (such as in the maths or sciences, or in an art such as photography or singing). You can also look into finding a job as an English teacher (check out www.EslCafe.com).

Become an Au Pair

The situations and benefits vary greatly depending on the kind of commitment you want, but typically you'll receive room, board, and a weekly paycheck; not to mention it's a great way to get to know a culture. Look at listings on www.aupairworld.com.

Work on an Organic Farm

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - otherwise known as WWOOF - is an excellent way to save money while helping out locals and spending your days in the sun and the soil. WWOOFing doesn't pay, but it does offer free board and meals and supports a positive, global cause, which is not only a great life experience but also the perfect opportunity to save money while on the road. www.wwoof.net

Sell Your Art and Craftsmanship Skills

Whether you're a photographer, a painter, a writer, or a musician, utilize your skills to gain revenue. Sell your artwork in markets, in hostels (with permission), or open an online shop (such as Etsy or Society6). If you want to freelance, see what jobs are available in your area on Craigslist, and frequently peruse community boards to see what's in demand. If you're more interested in selling photography, submit photos to distributors such as ImageBrief or iStock, and get in touch with the tourism bureau of where you're traveling. If they're interested in your photos, it's a great way to make money. 

Teach... again

Different than what I said before about tutoring: this is more for those of you who want to be even more mobile, or would rather try something more low-key than revising calculus. If you think you're good enough at yoga or tai-chi or meditation, host classes as you go, charging a certain amount and hanging fliers in hostels and community boards. If your skills lie more in the department of sports - such as diving, surfing, or climbing - see what job opportunities are available at adventure companies in your location. It may be more difficult to find work without first applying for a work visa in your respective country, but it's worth considering.

Freelance through Elance

Elance is where companies - from big corporations to small businesses - post listings looking for freelance work, and from the thousands of job listings that are constantly being cycled through Elance, there's undoubtedly something that matches your skill set. Whether your background is in web design, writing, programming, illustration, marketing, consulting, legal work, or engineering, you will find something that can be done remotely while you're on the road. Check out www.elance.com.

Dream of Finland

Every once in awhile, this beautiful thing happens.

You arrive somewhere — whether by boat, or horseback, or bus, or snowshoe — and it feels like you've stepped into a memory. I know it sounds strange — bear with me — but it's the sensation of finding yourself standing before something, and it pulls on your heart, and it aches in your chest, and it makes your throat heavy, and for some reason you don't really understand, you think to yourself,
Ah, it's here. I finally found this place.

What I'm trying to say is that for the first time in awhile, that happened today.

I sat in the snow, I took off my gloves, I let my snowshoes splay behind me, I listened to the echoing stillness of the summit of a mountain in the Finnish Arctic; the very same mountain I'd ached to someday see since I was 12 years old and saw flitting images of it on the pages of National Geographic magazines.

I think I've dreamed of this place long before I ever arrived. 

For awhile now, I've been in the Arctic.

Specifically in Lapland, Finland; far north of the Arctic Circle. I'm the photography guide for an expedition team, which is a group of aspiring photographers and travelers that I've grown immensely close with as we've endured some of the harshest weather conditions I've ever personally experienced, as well as the travel misadventures that comes with exploring a place so unpredictable and ever-changing. When I arrived in Helsinki in early January to greet everyone, I knew immediately on that first night that there was something very different and very special about this group of people. (To sum it up: on our first night together, we sat around a water pitcher in a dim airport hotel and talked and laughed for three hours straight). I felt something was different.

Our experiences in the Arctic only made my initial intuition about this smattering of people only come to fruition. Long hours spent in our trusty little green van as we plunged hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle only emphasized the crucial need for laughter, optimism, and joy in a place such as the midwinter Arctic. As we settled into our cabins and turned them into our cozy expedition bases — filled with the smell of cardamom buns baking in the oven, or heated by the deep flames from the fireplace overtaking the chill on our skin— we fell into routines that have quickly become dear to me. Such as:

  • Waking in the morning to a breakfast being made by my incredible co-leader and chef, Kylie Chenn; whether cinnamon buns made from scratch, Finnish crepes stuffed with fresh lingonberries, or homemade braided breads spiced with cardamom
  • The chaotic 30-minute process of putting on every small yet crucial bit of gear we'd need to just step outside for any amount of time
  • Climbing the nearest high hill to see the sun come up, hover like a heavy orange bruise over the pink horizon, and then set less than one hour later
  • Afternoons around the campfire under a forest roof of dense pine trees, sipping instant coffee from a dixie cup and swapping stories as we warm our numb fingers and toes
  • Playing a guessing game of, "what's the temperature right now?" (Spoiler: it dropped down to 40*F in one region)

And each evening closed with tea and photo critiques under the warm lights and log beams of our cabin, a sauna in the backroom, and a 2-course meal made completely from scratch by Kylie, which we'd sit around the table and dine on, laughing and musing and asking question after question, as we waited for the magnificent Northern Lights to make their way into the enormous black sky... which never happened, despite long hours in the middle of night spent standing desperately in frigid open clearings of tundra with our necks craned upwards at empty, gray clouds.

This is, however, until our final night in the Arctic; AKA, the night as I write this, curled up on a couch in our remote cabin on the edge of a dark lake, and a ribbon of mauve and emerald colors above.

I was literally so overwhelmingly excited when our spotter said that they had appeared that I ran out of the cabin into the -30*F cold wearing just a light jacket and my yoga pants and untied boots but camera in tow. All the hours of practice and drill we went through to get our gear on as fast as possible flew out the window, and it couldn't have been more perfect.

And the Northern Lights danced, just as I remembered they did. They shimmered, just as I remembered. They rippled, they exploded, they rained, they burst, they rose, the soared. Just as I remembered.

And yes, we screamed. And we danced. And we hugged each other. 

And I cried.

I cried a whole, whole lot.

And that's how it went here.

Every day, with a new adventure, new reason for laughter. We snowshoed through frozen forests and across brilliant tundras, in places that felt more like another world than anywhere else on Earth. We lost count of the herds of wild reindeer we passed time and time again. We broke bread with locals, we said yes to every opportunity, we asked questions. We found ourselves immersed in moments so genuine and authentic that it was hard for me to believe that we were this lucky, lucky enough. We ice fished. We cuddled baby sled dogs. We ate more soups than I can even count, with names I can pronounce. My mouth was consistently dry from talking and lecturing and talking even more. And we succeeded. We came home each day, frozen and rosy-cheeked and flustered with excitement and that sweet exhaustion, smelling of campfire smoke and lingonberries.

Let me note here that the trip isn't over yet; just our time in the Arctic is coming to a close. Tomorrow we go back to Helsinki to board a boat heading into the frigid, dark Baltic to take us to the shores of Estonia, but as this next journey hangs over my head, and the fire in the fireplace is burning out and the cabin is settling in for the long night, I can't stop thinking about these moments in Finland.

All these bits and pieces, all the moments of absolute joy, seemed to all come together today as I sat in the snow with my gloves off, and my snowshoes splayed, and the epic silence around me. While finally seeing the Northern Lights tonight was a gift beyond anything I could ever put into words, it was this morning on that mountain that brought it all together; that moment when I felt an onrush of memories of myself years ago, looking at the photographs of this one particular frozen mountain in the high Arctic of Finland. This place, those images, that seemed to stay in the back of my mind and had been, perhaps, driving me, even if only slightly, to where I sat today. On that very mountain. The one I'd been working towards. The one I'd spent years waiting to discover.

The one I walked onto and recognized from my dreams.

more photos in the days to come.

if you're interested in joining an expedition with me, visit www.Acanela.com

Traveler Safety | Master-Post

"But, isn't that dangerous?"

How many times has a backpacker heard this; whether it's from family, or friends, or strangely concerned strangers. When people hear of certain places -- such as "Africa" or "Colombia" or just a reference to "the Middle East" -- peoples' red flags go up. Especially in this day-and-age where social media and news alerts are almost constantly reminding us that the world is big and bad and scary. This constant connectivity to tragedy and danger can make it hard to keep in perspective the pretty minuscule likelihood of finding ourselves in real imminent danger. And the honest truth is that I have felt safer on the streets of Kathmandu or Arusha or Quito than I have in some areas of New York or San Francisco. The fact of the matter is this: danger is everywhere, kidnappings are everywhere, car crashes are everywhere, weird viruses and infections pop up everywhere, and if you are going to live your life based off the idea that something bad may happen in the general vicinity of a place you want to travel to, then you’re better off staying behind your closed door.

However, what's beautiful is that where there's one bad person, there are plenty of good people. Keep in mind all of the glorious, kind, peaceful, selfless acts that happen every moment of every day around the world; acts that are never reported on, and never pop up as news alerts on our phones. I know how when it seems like the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it can be hard to rationalize  travel. The idea of making yourself even more vulnerable by going out in the world (especially on your own) can seem scary to many. Actually, it does seem scary to many, but the fact that you're reading this already shows that you are brave. Your dreams of exploring the world are just on the other side of that nagging fear in the back of your mind. 

This doesn’t mean that I’m condoning an impromptu solo trip to Libya, or that I’m implying that navigating Cairo is as safe and simple as navigating Seattle. It’s about doing your absolute best to present yourself as a strong, confident traveler. It’s about strengthening your common sense, street smarts, and self defense so that you can adjust and react to different situations, places, and people appropriately. It's about believing in the kindness and beauty and depth of so many people in this world, and that the good outweighs the evil. And as for staying safe, it’s about confidence, bravery, and humility, and knowing when each of those must come into play. 

So that's what this post is for.

A typical road scene in Tanzania when our bus slid off the road

A typical road scene in Tanzania when our bus slid off the road

General Safety
(Airports, Terminals, Buses, Trains, Hitch Hiking, Taxis)

1.   Perhaps the most important piece of advice every traveler should bide by is this: make copies of your documents. Copies of your credit/debit cards, passport, visa, required vaccines, and medical prescriptions you need. Keep them in separate places, such as in your daypack, your luggage pack, your boot, your socks. With these copies hidden everywhere, keep the actual tangible documents with you at all times, especially when in transit. Some travelers prefer to wear money belts, which are subtle fabric belts you can wear under your pants or shirt that have pockets for documents such as a passport, credit cards, and money. These usually keep documents well hidden, and they keep them especially safe if your backpack is ever stolen. 

2.   Before arriving at your destination city, you should have considered how you will get from the airport to where you’re planning on spending that first night (whether it be hostel, hotel, guesthouse, campsite, so on). Unless you’re totally winging it, be sure to do research beforehand on how to get to your destination. Most hostels will offer directions (either on their website, or through directly communicating with them via email or phone) from major bus terminals, airports, ferry ports, etc, to the hostel. If you feel confident, follow these directions, as it will save you money and will also give you a taste for the area you’re in and how to navigate it (plus it will usually be cheaper than taking a taxi). However, some instances call for taxis as some cities and towns will not have solid public transit — such as arriving at Kathmandu at midnight after an exhausting 19 hours of travel. If you take a taxi, it is extremely important that you only take cabs that are driven by licensed drivers, are registered, and are metered. You may feel overwhelmed at busy transit areas because everyone will be encouraging you (sometimes by physically pulling you) to take their taxi. Only go with a driver who is reputable, and have the address, phone number, and name of your destination written down to give the driver so they know exactly where to go.

3.  If you decide to take public transit as opposed to taxis, it’s important to recognize that you will be more susceptible to petty theft, especially on buses or trains that are overcrowded. Keep your daypack on the front of your chest and in your line of sight at all times, don't let your luggage stray, and try to avoid flashing around pricey objects. For example, on a long bus haul where you want to read a book, it’s recommended to have a physical paperback copy you can pull out as opposed to a flashy iPad or eReader. On another note, pay attention to how much you should be paying for public transport- some people will try to rip tourists off. And if you can help it, avoid public transport at night, especially in countries with notoriously terrible roads and road accidents. Traveling during the day is almost always the better decision.

4.  As for hitchhiking, the rule of thumb is: don’t. Although in places such as Iceland (with some of the lowest crime rates in the world) you may get along just fine by traveling with your thumb upturned, it’s generally not a safe or wise decision, regardless of if you’re a man or woman, solo or with a group. If you absolutely must hitch a ride, do so with extreme care and caution. It’s okay to turn down an offer if the driver gives you a bad feeling, keep your valuables extremely well hidden, take off any jewelry, don’t give away too much personal information (if any), and keep a small can of mace hidden on you, yet within reach. If something starts to get funky — such as you find yourself suddenly on backroads or the drive is taking longer than you were anticipating — don’t be afraid to bail. Your safety becomes before all else, so when it doubt, get out.

 

Accommodation Safety
(Hostels, CoushSurfing, Home Invites, Camping, Hospitals)

1.   The word “hostel” and term “couch surfing” can sometimes paint a not-so-pretty picture in somebody’s mind — that is, until they actually experience a hostel or couch surfing themselves. Despite the negative reputation hostels may have contrived in the 70’s, today they are generally the safest place a traveler can stay. However, diligence is still key to safety in a hostel. While some hostels will offer lockers where you can keep your valuables safe, it’s generally a good idea to keep your most important belongings (such as expensive tablets and your passport) on you at all times; especially if you’re staying in a shared dorm.

2.   The same applies for CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.com). Sometimes considered trendier than hostels and offering a more "authentic" experience, many travelers now opt for CouchSurfing because of the connection that can be made with the host, the cultural closeness that most tourists and travelers are hidden from, as well as the benefit of having a free place to sleep. While the benefits are high, the level of your vulnerability raises as well. It’s absolutely key to listen to your gut, and to leave a situation the moment it begins to feel iffy. You should only stay with hosts who have a plethora of positive reviews, as well as photographs of both them and their residence. Every CouchSurfing host is vetted and reviewed, and while most people have extremely positive experiences with their hosts and CouchSurfing endeavors, you are absolutely expected to only stay where you are comfortable. And you do not have to have a reason for your discomfort; if you arrive and something feels funky, your safety and intuition are reasons enough to bail if you think that you’re in a potentially uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. 

3.   If you decide to go camping on your trip, be sure that the campsite(s) you stay at are reputable and legitimate. If you show up and it's deserted or lacking serious infrastructure, it's best to keep moving on. Pick a spot that isn't completely void of light, and be sure to keep all your valuables (boots, backpack, hiking poles) in your tent with you at night. If you plan to do remote camping in areas where there are no designated campsites, try to pick a spot that's not obviously in the open (go for the forest instead of the meadow clearing), and be sure that you know all the animal safety protocols; such as how to hang food if you're in bear territory, or what to do if you hear lions or elephants nearby.

4.   If you find yourself in a homestay position, fantastic! It's a pretty incredible opportunity to get to know a family over a (typically) extended period of time. Most homestay situations arise in two ways: 1. through an organization (such as a volunteer company) that puts its travelers with local families because of the affordability and authentic experience, or 2. a random invite to stay at a local's home. While in the first situation the families are usually vetted or at least interviewed, in the second situation, it's entirely up to the traveler to decide how the situation feels. There is an extraordinary amount of cultures around the world that revolve around wonderful, genuine hospitality that can be startling for the Westerner; so don't immediately raise your red flags if someone invites you to their home for a meal or a place to spend the night. Most of the time, they purely want to give and make you comfortable, which is one of the joys of travel. But -- like any other situation I mentioned earlier -- you must be aware of what's going on. What feeling are you getting? What does your gut tell you? Are they being aggressive about you coming to their house? Do their intentions seem even slightly malicious? If you want to avoid the situation, claim that you're about to meet someone and can't be late, and leave. It's as simple as that. Sample applies for pre-arranged homestays; even if a company you're traveling with assigns you to a family, if you're uncomfortable, you can request a different arrangement. Remember. Your safety and comfort is the priority. 

5.   Hospitals. If you need a doctor, go to the tourist hospital or the urgent care clinic. Look for basic sanitary signs: are the doctors/nurses wearing gloves? Are the needles coming out of packaged bags? Is it organized? Do the nurses and doctors have shoes on? (Yes, I've been in a hospital where my nurse wasn't wearing shoes). In developing nations, the tourist hospital should be your first priority destination when you need to be treated for something. If you really have no idea where to go, get in touch with your Embassy and ask them.

 

Traveling as a Solo Woman

I cannot find enough words in the English language to convey just how hugely wonderful, important, and exciting it is to be a solo woman traveling the globe, and I encourage all of my fellow ladies to independently take on the world at least once in their lives. En yet, it’s obvious that the importance of safety can be even more significant in this case, and I know the thought of being alone in the world as a woman can be daunting. Trust me, I know. However, most of the time, solo women simply have to exercise the same caution they would if they were a man or traveling with someone else, such as:

  • Be vague about where you’re staying, your name, or how long you’re going to be in town when talking to strangers or people you don’t know well
  • Do not take unmarked/unregistered taxis
  • Do not leave any drinks unattended
  • Only drink with people you can trust
  • If you’re on a road trip and a “police” car pulls you over, always wait until you can pull over somewhere well-lit, such as a market or gas station or busy intersection with street lights and other people. 
  • Keep valuables (money, camera, wallet, passport) well hidden on you, and know which situations you should avoid taking your camera to (such as out to a bar)
  • Be vague about how much expensive equipment you have with you. This applies for photographers for people traveling with laptops, iPads, etc.
  • Avoid areas of cities or countries that may be tense, such as where riots, fights, high ethnic tensions, or protests may be happening. This is super precautionary, but it's good to be aware. This can easily be read up on the US Travel Advisory website.
  • Generally avoid dark streets, unlit parks, and back alleyways.
  • Always let someone know what your plans are; whether it’s someone at home or staff at a hostel (such as: if you’re going for a hike or trek and what time you’re expecting to be back, what hostel you’re staying at, what the address is of the CouchSurfing location you may be using and the name of your host)

However, for a woman in particular, these tips should also be considered:

  • Walk with confidence, as cliche as it sounds. Keep your head up, shoulders back, and take confident strides. Take up space when you move, instead of appearing sheepish, shy, or vulnerable.
  • Before you head out, consider where you’re going beforehand so you don’t end up fumbling with a map or guidebook. Not only does this distract you from what’s going on around you, but it makes you appear distracted, which is what thieves or attackers generally look for in victims.
  • Don’t walk around with headphones in.
  • Feel free to lie about traveling solo. “Oh, my tour group is around the corner!” “My boyfriend is getting us breakfast.” “I’m here working, and I’m meeting my boss any minute now.”
  • Keep eye contact with people who may be acting aggressive towards you. If you feel like you’re being followed or taunted in a busy marketplace, for instance, turn around, stand up tall (refer to the first bullet-point about confidence), stare them straight in the eye, and tell them directly and clearly to stop following you or harassing you. This also tells the other person that you are not easy to take advantage of, and that you clearly see who they are (AKA, you’d be able to identify them later if need be).
  • Before setting out, learn basic self-defense. Even one or two classes is a smart idea. You will probably never in your life ever have to utilize these skills, but the boost of confidence and knowledge can make all the difference.
  • Although it’s unfortunate, we do live in a world where men are often respected more than women, and so mentioning that a woman is married will usually deter a flirtatious man more so than simply saying that she’s not interested. A common trick to get obnoxious or unwelcome flirtatious men to leave you alone is by mentioning that you are traveling with a husband. Usually this will be followed up with the man asking where your husband is, in which you can reply something along the lines of, “He’s at the market getting food but will be back in a moment,” or “He’s parking our car,” or “He’s in the bathroom, I’m waiting for him here.” In certain situations, I’ve even ended up walking around with a ring on my left hand, and noticed a surprising drop in the number of men who approached me to inquire about my love life.
  • Although it may sound temping, do not carry a knife on you unless you know how to use it. (Not to mention there are a bunch of gray areas in the legality of that, depending on where in the world you are). But I do recommend keeping mace on you or in your car if you're road tripping.
  • If you feel like you’re being followed, jump into any well-lit restaurant, cafe, market, police station, disco, gas station; anywhere that has people that can help defend you or at least allow you to hang out until the follower is gone.
  • Know the country's police phone number by heart.
  • Don’t be afraid to be loud. If someone is encroaching on your personal space and won’t back off, by all means be loud! Demand boldly and boisterously that they leave you alone. Draw attention to yourself. Get others on the street to notice what’s going on if the situation is escalating. And of course, in the worst case scenario:
  • Scream. If you feel that you are seriously being threatened, draw as much attention to yourself as possible.

This isn’t meant to scare. The likelihood of a situation rising to anything more aggressive than mere inquiries about your husband (“Where is he? You’re so beautiful!”) or tugging on your arm in a tourist market to pull you into their shop so you can buy their crafts, is likely to not happen to you. However, being prepared for an array of situations and taking certain precautions helps boost your chances of safety, so they’re good to take note of.

If I missed any crucial points, feel free to leave them in the comments, we can continue to keep each other safe out there in the world.

little ellipses of living

I feel like I laid down for a nap in August and suddenly I've woken up four months later and it's only a few days out from Christmas and all the bits and pieces for 2016 are coming together and it all happened in such a flash that I can hardly believe that the end of 2015 is only in a couple weeks and, what.

This year has come and gone wildly fast.

I've been fairly M.I.A. with this blog due to a slew of other obligations; a documentary to film and edit, a new photo series that has the promise to grow into a photo book, trudging along with writing my other travel book, piecing together the puzzle that will be traveling to 15+ countries next year, and all the while exploring every corner of my little slice of Northern California in the small, precious, free moments. Because of these things, I've put blogging on the back burner. So it goes.

And now. I'm currently on a plane headed to New York City for the next three weeks before beginning the adventure of guiding an expedition to Russia and Finland's Lapland, deep in the remote Arctic, under a threaded sky of glorious Northern Lights. And from there on out, the ball really won't stop rolling; plans for next year involve England, South America, Scandinavia, Asia, and almost ten countries across Africa. Even just writing about it is stirring something in my chest that I can't put into words.

I can't help but feel like the last few months have been the equivalent of a race horse in the starting gate, waiting for that final bell to sound and the doors to fly open.

It's certainly beginning.

Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, CA

Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, CA

So. The point of this post, I guess, is to say that posts on this blog will become much more consistent (I'm installing a subscription feature), so there is that to look forward to. 

But right now I want to talk about 2015.

Romania in June

Romania in June

The waves of this year will be felt decades into my future.

I traveled to the high Arctic of Sweden and Norway and saw the Northern Lights for the first time in my life.
I moved into my first real house.
I had photos published by National Geographic.
I road tripped 4,000 miles across 15 countries in Eastern Europe.
I took cooking classes, chased rivers and waterfalls, and slept beneath volcanoes and jungle canopies in Costa Rica.
I met and photographed celebrities such as Gregory Alan Isakov.
I had assignments that broke my back and shaped my news career; from politicians to crime, to drug addictions to history-makers.
I reconnected with lost friends from past travels.
I camped beneath redwoods, I rode horseback through California mountains, I sat before Lake Tahoe, I fell in love with the Pacific.
I was given the greatest job position of my life, and now, my world is shaping around it.

Here's to all the little ellipses of life.

Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice

My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't a Tate-summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.

I've always been more inclined for colder regions - humidity makes me lethargic and grumpy but cold gives me adrenaline - so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its timeless sensation of long, dark winters and bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.

I decided to go to Iceland.

I never had any doubt that I wouldn't fall in love with Iceland. The year that I traveled there - 2012 - was right before the internet's craze and obsession over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable. I'm usually wary of traveling to countries, cities, or regions that are super-duper amped up for being tourist destinations (such as Santorini or Paris, both of which I've had my qualms) because I've found that they're usually saturated with foreigners and tourists, tourbuses and cruise ships. While there's nothing inherently wrong about going to tourist-popular destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a foreigner too), it gets exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is overcrowded with people elbow-bumping each other to get to the view that seemed so perfectly remote and untouched in all of those Instagram posts.

Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.

With only 300,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is the least inhabited country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x). En yet, I was still shocked at how alone I felt, and how easy it was to become completely lost with only a few turns off the main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the island's coast, but most visitors stick to the little Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).

But whether you have a week, two weeks, or a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.

If you're going to do Iceland, you have to do it right.

Highlights & Must Do's

  1. Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic islanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).

2.   Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll pass trails and vistas and careening glaciers, and can end with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance). Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are small places for accommodation in Hellissandur.

3.   Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. Be sure to see Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, and if you're inclined to turn these three waterfall visits into a couple days of exploration near Reykjavik, consider stopping to see the famous Geysers explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and visit Thingvellir National Park for a quick hike or a picnic; or for the more adventurous, you can go diving or snorkeling in a trench where the North American and European continents divide.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

4.   Spend at least three days in Vatnajökull National Park in Eastern Iceland, which holds sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe. Stay in the campsite in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park and lay in your tent listening to the glacier as it comes to life, creaking and groaning as the volcano it's nestled on top of makes the ice crack and shift, sending eery echoes down into the valley. The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.

Note: nearby to the national park is the iconic glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where icebergs that have broken off from the glacier float in a frigid lagoon, nestled in an amphitheater of peaks, glaciers, and volcanic black sand beaches.

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

5.   Often missed on most tourists' itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region hidden deep in the center of Iceland is perhaps one of the most brilliantly unique natural landscapes that I've seen in all of Europe. Multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. There's a campsite in the Landmannalaugar valley that's the perfect jumping-off point for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.

To hit all of those sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the hidden black sand beaches, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters, be captivated by the farmhouses covered in vines, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.

I promise you.

It's worth the hype.

11.11.15

Do you ever walk into a room and you smell crushed coriander and indian bay leaves that were simmered on a stove twenty-four hours ago, and suddenly you are hit with such an overwhelming saturation of homesickness (the good kind) and longing (the exciting kind) and wanderlust (the beautiful kind), and it just smothers you and sweeps over you, and in that second you are taken over by images of yourself walking those winding sun-bleached streets of Delhi or looking out onto the sun-dappled valleys of the high Kashmir, where you can hear a rooster nearby or the distant shifting of a glacier, and you smell those spices intertwined in the woodsmoke as they float from a nearby village on the breeze.

___

Folks, my heart is aching right now. With joy, with adrenaline, with love, with nostalgia (so much), with wanderlust (so much), with an almost unfathomable amount of homesickness for the world. It’s as simple as that.

Last night and this morning I spent hours upon hours with probably one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. We will be spending the next several years traveling the world together (with at least 12 countries under our belt by this time next year). She wore a scarf from her travels and had a soft voice as she spoke of her stories from around the globe, which we swapped and delved into as she cooked a spicy coconut curry from Northern India that she was taught when she was over there “however many winters ago.” We found out where we each most want to go in the world. Where we would never go again. Why we do this. How did we begin this. And all the remarkably small events and degrees-of-separation that lead us to each other and then, somehow, bizarrely and wonderfully and fatefully, here. 

Look.

Whatever happens, happens, but when I say that I am living my dream, I mean it. Something kept coming up in our conversation: dreams that we share and realized that, hey, we could actually begin to accomplish them. Dream of an exploration of Iran; of weeks upon months of backpacking the Far East; of the spice markets and vanishing tribes of Ethiopia, of the lava-ridden craters of the volcanoes deep in the Congo; of an epic, epic, epic photo book that we may have just agreed to collaborate on and bring to fruition, which would, well, change everything.

All day these past few months and especially today, the images of these places and these goals have been plastered to the forefront of everything I do. Lifelong dreams, remarkable accomplishments, connections with lifelong idols, are suddenly not just possibilities, but are on my calendar. Are business calls. Are real. Are happening. There is so much I want to say here but it’s really too soon, but I just had to say something. Hence this babble.

So.

My heart is bursting at the seams for this extraordinary chapter about to begin. These amazing people. These dreams coming true. These dreams already come true.

Here’s to those nights when you love your life so much that you’re too excited to sleep.

Here’s to living a life so full and so rich that the smallest things have the power to move you to tears of joy; even something as small as the smell of coriander; of indian bay leaves.