Beautiful Things in an Unjust World

Something I love about Mozambique is how Mozambicans love the water.

There’s a stereotype that Africans hate the ocean, that they’re afraid of it. The purpose of a river or of the sea is to fish, to wash their clothes, to bend over with their backs facing up toward the glinting sun as they pick oysters off the rocks, to collect water to drink and boil and bathe in.

But Mozambique is different. It was one of the first things I noticed when I first arrived here, and it’s one of the things that makes me fall in love with it all over again, like I am now.

Tofo, Mozambique

Tofo, Mozambique

Mozambique and I had a fight recently. It felt like a lovers quarrel but much more cold and indifferent. I don’t really care to get into the details but I had one of those weeks where I dealt with it all: a string of robberies and home invasions in our sleepy town, harassment from drunks, carelessness. One of those weeks where even just burning my tongue on a plate of beans or getting looked at funny would almost send me into a fit of a tears. On one of these days I decided to get into bed at 2 p.m. and didn’t leave until the evening, in which I promptly walked into a fight where a man was hitting a woman and the police stood on the side, standing nonchalantly with their hands in their pockets. I turned around and went back home.

Something aesthetic-travel blogs and filtered Instagram pages don’t prepare you for when you think about living in a third world country is that you are moving to a place where there really is very little justice. There just isn’t. It’s a place where the inner core is rotten with corruption and it spreads to the streets like mold, creeping into the lives of people who do not deserve it. The home robberies that have increased in frequency, where the crooks run free and, when they are caught and brought to the police station, they bribe their way out and flee. When men who reek of liquor hit their wives and girlfriends and the policemen stand on the side, making idle chitchat. Where innocent people just trying to get by come down with malaria; where people suffer from illnesses that would be so easily treated somewhere else.

Moving to a country in Africa is not always elephants and palm trees. It’s corruption, it’s sexism on both sides, it’s knowing that if someone does cause you some level of harm, the most justice you will get is your friends running into the bush wielding baseball bats and coming back empty handed. And I think this has really settled on my shoulders and my mind this week: there is not always justice in an unjust world.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t, also, a lot of beauty.

After a testing few days I knew I had to makeup with Mozambique after our fight, just like any relationship, I suppose. I went down to the ocean just before sunset and jumped into the water, turquoise and clear. I wrapped myself in my oversized towel and sat on the sand for awhile, and watched the exquisite world around me.

Three Mozambican girls in their soaked school clothes were screaming with absolute joy, huge smiles on their faces, as they held hands and jumped into the waves. Holding their noses, smacking their hands on the water’s surface, running to the safety of the sand before leaping back into the waves.

Behind me, a group of young local boys played soccer along the shoreline, and just down the beach I saw a couple of teenage Mozambicans jogging with their surfboards in tow. As they passed me, they smiled and waved, and that was all.

One of the first things I ever fell in love with in Mozambique were the colors: everything is bathed in turquoise and gold and emerald green. Just as it was this afternoon. And the other thing, was how Mozambicans love the water. Just as they were this afternoon. Just as they are every afternoon, when I’m not too blinded to see it.

There are a lot of beautiful things in this unjust world.

Ihla de Mozambique

Ihla de Mozambique

“But what I want to say is this: After the period of melancholy is over, you will be stronger than before,
you will recover your health, and you will find the scenery round you so beautiful that you will want nothing but paint.”

Arrival

// Excerpt from journal entry in January, 2018
One week after moving to Mozambique

Maputo, Mozambique

Maputo, Mozambique

I’m trying to figure out why Africa is so familiar.

Not just familiar because I have, of course, been here before — but that kind of deep, down-to-your-bones kind of familiarity you get when you find a haphazard shoebox of childhood photos, or walk into a room that smells like that worn, red carpet from the living room floor of your childhood home. Every time I step off the plane in Africa, even the air is sweet and heavy and verdant and overwhelmingly nostalgic. The sensation feels so deeply embedded inside of me that it feels like I could find my way around the streets and the savannas with the same familiarity and ease of someone driving through the town where they grew up, decades after they left. It makes me homesick for something I can feel, that I’m sure exists, but can’t pinpoint its origin. Whatever it is, I know it smells like the air here.

That was the first thing I noticed when I came to Africa for the first time, to Tanzania nine years ago. Stepping onto the tarmac around midnight, into the warm, still night: the air was just different. It was something I didn’t know air could be. It was some perfume of woodsmoke and wet acacia leaves and jet fuel and dust. If I could bottle it up and keep it forever, I would. Though maybe that would defeat the purpose of what makes the air here so affecting: you have to come here to have it. It’s the first mark — the first sign — that you’ve arrived somewhere very special.

It’s the same way now. Stepping off the plane in Maputo was like stepping into every good memory I’ve ever had, all brought to the forefront of my mind. It makes every hard thing not only easier, but right. The chaos of the airport (where it takes two hours to get a visa and the power goes out twice and a lumbering, lazy, fat fly won’t stop trying to land on my cheek); the 3:30 a.m. bus journey up the spine of the country (with one stranger’s screaming baby on your lap, a chicken and a bag of grain by your feet, so many near head-on collisions that you lose count, and some cracking, muffled Nigerian tune blaring on loop for eight hours over the speakers). Being faced with a new life to adjust to (the privileges and familiarities and rituals of a comfortable life in the U.S. unceremoniously traded in for a whole new world and whole new life with a lot of unforeseen challenges to come). Anywhere else in the world these problems feel heavy, but here they feel welcome. It feels naive to fight against the current of a continent that doesn’t belong to me, that I am a guest on, because it’s a privilege to be able to choose it and to build a life for myself here. Africa is a practice of patience, but if you’re willing to be patient, the rewards are tremendous.

On my first night in Tofo — the little seaside town I’ve chosen to call my base for awhile — I went to a little bar in the market, where I shook hands and accepted hugs from a wide breadth of expats, from all over the world who, much like me, decided at one point or another to make this place their home. Mostly though I was surprised by the number of “welcome back!”’s I received from people I had only briefly met in the previous year, when I first came here, having no idea that someday I would give it a shot as my home.

The air smelled robust, of piri-piri and hot embers, of bug spray and sweat, of saltwater rolling off the Indian Ocean in heavy, humid clouds. Somehow, familiar.

Year's End

Seasons change in Mozambique, but if you just look at it, with its year-round emerald green palm trees and tangled patches of flowers, you can’t really tell.
You have to feel it.

In the last few weeks I spent in Mozambique before flying back to America for the holiday, I found myself sitting in the garden under my dripping wet laundry hung on the clothesline, ants occasionally crawling on my knees and acacia thorns occasionally pricking my bare feet, just to escape the heat. I’d sit there with my laptop, trying to work with the glinting sun on the screen, picking at cold grapes on a paper towel I’d taken out of the freezer. It was the only midday relief I could find now that summer was, and is, settling like a heavy, wool blanket over that little corner of Africa. 

It’s summer again in Mozambique, unbearably hot and still, with evenings laden with sweating glass bottles of beer, humming fans, sundresses and hair sticking to our foreheads. Then there’s winter, which are months of reprieve; comfortably warm days and evenings chilly enough to need a sweater, or even a jacket — these are the months of sleeping under duvets, of warm sweet potato soup; things that feel like little daily miracles in a tropical country. There are the other seasons: the windy season, when easterly winds blow heavily from Madagascar, carrying clouds of jellyfish toward our shores and making the once-a-day flight out of town feel like a rollercoaster ride; there’s the humpback season, when the horizon is so saturated with migrating whales that, at any given moment, a quick glance out at sea will let you spot at least a dozen whales as they breach, slap their tails, chase dolphins and curious frigatebirds. During this season, you can hear them singing like sirens when you dive underwater; they lull beside you at sunrise as you sit on your surfboard, patiently watching them as they pass. You can take your kayak and paddle only ten minutes out from shore before you’re within just a few meters of one of these spectacularly (and frighteningly, I admit) gentle giants.

But for me, nothing has marked the passing of time, and marks the beginning of summer, quite as much as mangos.

With their blood red skin, plump and sticky, piled high by the dozens in overflowing baskets dotted alongside the highway that runs like a spindly vein up the length of the country.

The mangos are back, which means summer is here. Which means the year is ending, and as I had my first mango of the summer a few weeks ago, standing wrapped in a towel in the kitchen, I realized that it tasted like January. It tasted like a year come full circle, a year about to end, and another year on this continent soon about to begin.

Yes, there’s still another couple weeks until 2018 comes to a close. But for me, the taste of an East African mango was the beginning of me, I guess, accepting that soon, the year will be over. It has come full circle, back to me standing in that familiar kitchen, with the sheen of mango juice on my hands and its fibers in my teeth. You know how certain smells and certain tastes can be associated with memories so strongly that it almost knocks the wind out of you?

Without me even realizing or noticing it at the time, that’s what a mango has become for me.

The last time I had a mango was maybe the middle of February – right in the height of a sticky Mozambican summer, in a sun-flooded cabin that overlooks turquoise water, right at the very beginning of my insane (terrifying? exciting? wild? best-thing-ever?) move to Africa. I was dipping my toe into a life here. The year turned out to be incredible, though at the time I didn’t see it coming. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be sent on assignments to the Seychelles, to Kenya, to South Africa, to Gabon, all across Mozambique. I was at the beginning of so much unforeseen: music festivals in Swaziland; countless road trips through Mozambique and South Africa; my work published in over 350 publications across the world; chasing northern lights across Iceland, listening to the volcanos rumble and the glaciers creak; countless mornings of fireside coffee and sleeping on jungle floors; honing my patience with snakes and scorpions and some awful thing called camel spiders; so many border runs it made my head spin; ringing in my birthday with the staff of The New York Times as we rain into the Indian Ocean at midnight; and becoming an official, legal resident of Mozambique.

All of that, between then and now. Between the mangos of February and the mangos today.

I know Mozambique doesn’t have the changing leaves in autumn or the exciting first snowfall that a part of me does miss. But we have our baskets of mangoes on the kitchen counter, blending one moment into another.

Ilha de Mozambique. August 2018

Ilha de Mozambique. August 2018

January 2018

January 2018

Going One-Way

I recognize, and apologize for, my pretty much complete absence from this blog for the past however-many months. Every time I would go to write, I found that I really couldn't get myself to make a post about life lately without talking about the big changes I've been trying to make. These changes often felt too premature to announce as so much was still in the works and unfolding, so I figured it was better to stay quiet while I tried to figure out this new phase in my life as new opportunities kept arising, the road kept changing, and new ideas kept emerging. I didn't want to speak anything into existence until I was certain.

Now, though, I'm certain. And as I start blogging again, I guess I'll kick it off with this:

On Tuesday, January 9th, I'm moving to Africa to work full-time as a photojournalist throughout the East and Southern region of the continent.

It still feels pretty surreal to say. This move is big and challenging and wild and exciting but with my one-way ticket just days away, it couldn't be any more real. It also couldn't be any more right.

Botswana, 2017

Botswana, 2017

Since my first time to Tanzania in 2010, which was also my first longterm trip outside of the U.S., I felt on some level that I would someday live and work in East Africa; I just didn't know how or when or for how long or if it would have anything to do with the field I work in. However, in the early months of last year, I began planting the seeds to figure out how to make the move happen. I knew I'd have the ability to leave San Francisco come December 2017, so in the interim, I searched to see what was out there. I followed every single lead I could find, I bothered every single editor I could somehow find the contact info for, and my search even took me to London in March to see what I could find there. However, after an amazing opportunity presented itself, I ended up traveling to South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique from May to August to work for three magazines, which was the final incentive I needed to cement the decision that I had to move there, indefinitely. I had to give it a go.

I was enamored by how fulfilling my work was, how exceptionally beautiful the region was, and how wonderful the people I had met were. And with offers to come back to work for these magazines again in 2018, as well as landing work for two other publications that have been my dream jobs since I was 15-years-old, there was no further question. This was it. This is it.

So I went back to San Francisco for the last time, and started packing.

Yosemite, 2017

Yosemite, 2017

I was looking forward to beginning the process of taking down my life in California, because of what it meant I was getting ready for. But still, I was surprised by the moments that felt incredibly easy, and the moments that kind of stung. Such as:

Easy:

  • Seeing my house completely empty for the first time since I moved in and noticing how much it echoes

  • Accepting that my time in San Francisco had come to an end, that I had taken full advantage of all SF could offer me, that I had used my time there wisely and fully

  • Having final hoorahs to visit my favorite spots in California - Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the redwoods, the desert, the cliffs behind my house - knowing fully well that I embraced them as much as possible in my four years

  • Quietly and unceremoniously walking out of the newsroom for the last time

  • Fully appreciating the fact that I was leaving California on good terms with the city that had given me so much trouble during my first few years.

Not so easy:

  • Saying goodbye to friends with a meek "see you soon..?", even though you both know that's really, honestly, probably not true.

  • Becoming acutely aware of basic creature comforts that I'm about to be without (temperate and comfortable Northern California weather; a closet full of clothes; being a short drive or walk away from anything I may need - whether a doctor, a camera repair shop, or a grocery store that's familiar and bountiful)

  • Watching strangers from Craigslist clear out my bedroom and my living room and feeling almost defensive, almost protective, over the most inane, silly things (for example, my dresser: which had seen me through college and two moves and an eviction and a breakup and a get-together and was now going with some lady who didn't seem to care that she scratched it as she dragged it out the front door)

  • Realizing that I owned way too much stuff

  • Trying to figure out how I ended up owning two salad bowls

  • (Which inevitably turned into many afternoons with me standing in my kitchen, looking at these salad bowls, wondering what I was going to do with them and how they even got there in the first place)

In the end, though, I had reduced my beautiful, warm, sunlit house by the ocean down to a few seldom things:

  • A few boxes to be held in a storage unit in New England

  • What I could fit in my little white car (a poster I couldn't part with; a couple of sentimental pine cones from Tahoe)

  • A suitcase and a backpack what will go with me to my new home on my new continent.

I left my keys on the empty counter in the kitchen, and my life in California came to close.

Me, Alamere Falls, Point Reyes. 2017. Photo by Andy Taylor.

Me, Alamere Falls, Point Reyes. 2017. Photo by Andy Taylor.

I won't pretend that this move is going to be easy. It's going to be hard work, it's going to be challenging. It's going to be faraway from my family and beyond July of this year, it's relatively unforeseen. But to say that I'm just looking forward to the challenge is a monumental understatement of how immensely excited I am to begin this adventure. Every year that I've traveled and worked in this part of the world has only further cemented how right it feels to be there. So here it goes. 

Open for anything. Ready for everything. Absolutely not looking back.

Pomene, Mozambique, 2017

Pomene, Mozambique, 2017

Franschhoek, South Africa

Franschhoek, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Tofo, Mozambique - the first place I'll unpack my bags.

Tofo, Mozambique - the first place I'll unpack my bags.

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.

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.

DSC_6912.jpg

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 better judgment 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

 

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.

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

In Defense of the Tourist with the Knapsack and the Guidebook

The thing about tourists,

is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them and if you’re one of those people who consistently finds yourself mocking tourists who are in absolutely no way causing you any harm, then you need to cut it out, now.

Living in New York and San Francisco, I deal with a fair share of tourists. Constantly. They whirl around the subways, they clunk into me on the sidewalks with their backpacks and cameras, they cruise down Park Ave and the Embarcadero in those infamous giant red buses. They’re easy to spot, as they usually are wearing tennis shoes, have a backpack stuffed with guidebooks and rain jackets, and they’re hiding in a corner of Grand Central trying to decipher a map. En yet, I’ve noticed that this bizarre disdain for these innocent travelers (note: innocent) has become more and more prevalent, as almost every single time I’m walking with a local and we spot someone who is clearly a traveler, the person I’m with will scoff and practically spit the word under their breath, “tourist.”

We need to talk about this arrogance.

Why do people hate tourists so much? What is so wrong and shameful about someone who wants to see a new city, park, country? We as a Western society have come to loathe tourists to such an extent that we go amusingly far out of our way to avoid looking like one, whether abroad or even in our home cities. God forbid we carry a backpack. God forbid we wear comfortable walking shoes (even if we’re walking 15 miles on pavement and cobblestone that day). God forbid we ask someone for directions. And, god forbid, we are ever caught dead with a guidebook in our hands.

I’m very proud of where I’m from (NYC), and I’m very proud of where I live now (SF). I think it’s wonderful that people will put a year (or more)’s worth of savings into flying halfway across the globe to come visit the places where I’ve grown up. Therefore, I accept and understand that walking through Times Square on a Saturday afternoon will be busy with people whose necks are craned down at maps or up at the shimmering buildings; I accept this because it’s some peoples’ dreams to see this, as it may be my dream to see their city, and so I owe them the same patience as I would want for myself. Not to mention that NYC is massive and SF is famous for its hills; why would I make fun of them for wearing the clothes that will make them most comfortable to explore (as long as the clothing is not offensive)? I know I would not want to be uncomfortable when walking the hills of Rio de Janeiro; why would I want them to be uncomfortable when walking the hills of SF, just so that they blend in and save me the half second of growling “tourist”?

I know, acknowledge, and understand that some tourists and a lot of tourism can be problematic; but that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about the strange fear we have of “looking like a tourist,” and the unwarranted disdain towards a tourist we spot on the other side of the street who’s simply minding their own business. It’s hurtful, unnecessary, and pretentious. Cut it out.

TL;DR: stop treating tourists like their curiosity is a heinous crime just because they dress a certain way and like to see a city on top of a big red bus. You’re not any better than them.

Eastern Europe, notes from the road

For seven weeks this summer, I rented a car and did a 4,200 miles road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria through 15 countries.
Throughout the trip, I tried to write about certain places and experiences in little excerpts. Here are some of them.

Bulgaria to Montenegro//
I arrived in Montenegro after 12 hours of driving through the slot canyons and switchbacks of remote Serbia; we paused only for espressos and to eat sandwiches by a mosquito-ladden riverside. In Montenegro I found myself most evenings sitting barefoot on the windowsill of my room, where just below my dangling legs the emerald waves of the Bay of Kotor lapped up on the whitewashed walls. I sat for hours on end eating from a bag of warm cherries that I had purchased earlier that day in the castle’s farmers’ market. The hills of the Balkans smell of mint and lavender, occasionally heavy woodsmoke, and the scent perfumed the air as we spent one evening watching the sunset from the top of a surrounding craggy peak. We spent nights walking along the pier, gazing up at the glowing, golden fortress illuminated on the steep black mountains.

Montenegro to Dubrovnik//
After a stunning drive along the careening bay of Kotor, along with a hitchhiking australian in the backseat, we arrived in Dubrovnik. It felt more like a movie set than a historical landmark, with its towering golden walls, steep cobblestone alleys strung with white cotton sheets flapping lazily in the warm Adriatic breeze, echoing church bells, steep drops from viewpoints into the clear waters of the sea. To save money, we’d been dining on pb&j sandwiches — feeling much like children all over again — and have had an ongoing competition to find the best lunch spot (Dubrovnik’s was pretty good, in the shade of olive trees on a castle wall built in the 13th century). We set up camp down the peninsula from the old city, where our natural alarm clock each morning was the unbearable heat of the rising sun through the tent’s nylon, but we found refuge in the evenings on the rocky shore down a shaded path from camp. On our final morning, we stopped to pick up pastries from a local shop; mine was coated with powdered sugar and oozing with thick, warm jam made from the cherries picked in the dalmatian hills. Overwhelming sweetness, lips stained cherry red.

Dubrovnik to Bosnia//
The road rose from the coast and steadily snaked through fields of dry shrubs, sand, and dust, past abandoned buildings, empty factories, crumbling stone walls, thin donkeys pawing the hot ground. The air stifling enough to suffocate inside of our small, cramped car. The city of Mostar felt war-torn, with its homes riddled with bullets, gaping holes in the sides of buildings, tank shells being sold at the crafts market to make ‘something good’ of a recent war. Our hostel here was empty, hospital-like with neon lights, and about a twenty minute walk to the stari most — the famous old bridge — which was destroyed in the war, rebuilt, and now stands in the midst of mosques and citrus trees. I remember hearing the call to prayer as we approached the bridge for the first time under a mauve sky. We had dinner one night next to a group of Austrian men who told Eric that he should go to this small town in croatia where the women outnumber men 9 to 1. They gestured to me and told me to cover my ears.

Bosnia back to Croatia//
A quiet, short ferry ride took us to the gem that is Mljet Island, where we camped at a completely empty site under the tangled shade of olive trees (although I was consistently pestered by the campsite’s abundance of horse flies). Down a dusty road we found an isolated cove in an inlet hugged by an ampitheater of pine trees. Here we swam in the warm Adriatic waters in the golden afternoon light; the sand white and sun-bleached; andrew bird and iron & wine playing from the speakers. We filled ourselves to the brim with grilled vegetables painted with olive oil, sea salt, roasted garlic and thick bread, with a spectacularly blue backdrop cradling the island’s shore and small villages. One evening we ran to a clearing to catch a sunset unlike anything I’d ever seen; the air thick with ocean and the perfume of wildflowers and fig trees.

Mljet to Plitvice//
We’d been making frequent pitstops at roadside fruit stands, buying bags upon bags of peaches, cherries, apples and sweet peppers warmed from the sun. By the time we arrived in Plitvice from Mljet we’d eaten all six of the peaches we’d picked up that morning, savoring their ripe juices as they flowed down our cheeks and splattered onto our laps and feet. For the first time in weeks we felt relief from the heat as we curved higher into the northern Croatian hills, setting up camp in the shade of pine trees in thick, plump grass. Plitvice consisted of miles upon miles of winding trails and boardwalks, snaking through countless cascading waterfalls, topaz-colored pools speckled with lily-pads that held neon-blue dragonflies. 

Plitvice to Slovenia//
Ljubljana felt as if it was picked straight out of a fairytale, where all the wonderful parts of Europe (the castles, the pastel-colored houses, the sidewalk cafes, the bridges and town squares studded with medieval statues) were condensed into one small remarkably pleasant city. We made our way from there to Lake Bled, which had a surprisingly dense tourism industry. The shores of the lake were blanketed with hotels and casinos, and the narrow streets clogged with tour buses. Overwhelmed, we spent most of our time here high in the neighboring national park, where we had a lunch of canned beans in a meadow where cows came to investigate their visitors, and ended up sitting with peeled oranges on the shore of a much quieter, yet much grander lake. The roads were often crowded with herds of cows making their way slowly home. One night we went for a walk, and I paused to pick lilac-colored flowers, and we sat in a field of tangled grass to watch the clouds settle on the granite peaks of the alps.

Slovenia to Austria//
After Bled we drove into Austria, where we stayed in a strange bunker-style hostel on the outskirts of Vienna as heavy gray storm clouds rolled in. On the night we arrived, we met up with a girl, Kristina (whom we last saw in Vienna a year and a half ago during a bitter winter), at a wine bar in a quiet neighborhood in a Vienna suburb. We drank cool white wine, ate thick pumpernickel bread, inhaled the cigarette smoke from local Viennese men watching a football match in the back corner of the bar, and chatted as the cool drizzle outside eventually came to a brief stop. We ended up wandering the pastel-colored streets of another nearby town, where Kristina found us chocolate gelato which we ate fondly as we gazed towards the Vienna skyline from the highest point of a grassy park in a clearing of weeping willow trees.

Vienna to Prague//
The drive from Austria to the Czech Republic was strange, as immediately over the Czech border we were bombarded with massive billboards advertising show girls, erotic shops, dinosaur-themed amusement parks, and tacky medieval-themed restaurants where you could watch fake jousting while eating dried fried chicken. Our hostel in Prague was in an unassuming part of town, but I swear to you that I will never forget the moment that I stepped into the Old Town Square for the first time. It was bathed in rich golden light from the setting sun, and I couldn’t help but turn in circles, overwhelmed by the majesty that is Prague. Words like marvelous and magical and majestic come to mind when I think of Prague. Even St. Nicholas’ Church brought me to tears; only the second time in my life a manmade structure has done so. We spent most of our days in Prague walking aimlessly, eating pastries coated in burnt sugar and almonds, sipping beers in the shadows of the castle, listening to a violinist on the Charles Bridge as the sun sunk into the spired horizon.

Prague to Poland//
We stayed in a small apartment above a restaurant in the peaceful Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Krakow was surprisingly pleasant, with its lively bar scene, colorful restaurants boasting mostly Israeli and Jewish cuisines, musical squares and shaded parks. We spent one day driving to Auschwitz, where we realized upon arrival that it’s necessary to book a tour in advance (which we did not), so we ended up on a 2-hour Italian tour. I crashed the car into a wall here, too. I was happy to leave.

Poland to Slovakia//
From the plains of Poland we winded into the high mountains of Slovakia, greeted by alpine lodges, remote roads, beckoning peaks shimmering with layers of snow. Our guesthouse here overlooked a meadow pinpricked with grazing horses in a clearing of thick pine forest. We spent our days driving to castles and wandered their ruins with to-go espresso cups, and took walks through the silent forests, never passing another soul. Each night it stormed, rain coming down in heavy sheets, and we sat in our room drinking lemony tea I’d bought in Prague and played Slovakian scrabble (which was a challenge, but we figured it out).

Slovakia to Hungary//
Back out of the mountains to the wheat fields of Hungary, rising into the gray buildings that comprise of Budapest. After spending a morning doing the obligatory walk to the main churches, we came to a pathetic yet amusingly honest conclusion that can only come after five weeks in Europe: we were burnt out on churches. We took a break from gothic architecture to spend the afternoon soaking in the famous thermal baths that run from the hot waters underneath Budapest. Under a gray, misting sky, we sat in the steaming pools up to our chins, laughing, people watching, feeling the mineral-rich waters soothe our skin. The next day was Eric’s birthday, where I surprised him with a 9-course wine tasting in a 13th century cellar under a castle in the Old City. We spent almost three hours there, and afterwards enjoyed cake on the steps of a statue in the castle’s main square. In the fading light we walked back to our hostel, pausing for water at a Cat Cafe; because, hell, you have to do it once.

Hungary to Romania//
The scariest part of the whole trip had been driving in Romania; the drivers were aggressive, selfish, pushing us almost off the road too many times to count. Happily we arrived in Transylvania, where we spent several days hopping from town to town, admiring medieval villages with their brightly colored lopsided houses, black gothic churches, and of course Bran Castle, which Dracula supposedly haunts (although I found it to be quite charming and not at all menacing). On an evening in Brasov after drinks and chips, we found a free movie playing in the town’s main square; the following morning we set off to climb high into mountains to stay at a small farm guesthouse, where we read our novels, listened to the cow bells out in the pasture, woke to the sound of rain on the tin-roof and the smell of coffee brewing on the stove, ate heaps of pasta overlooking the craggy granite cliffs. On the sunny evenings after dinner, we’d climb a nearby hill to see the sun set over the vibrant green hills, thatched roofs of the farmhouses, and the towering blue mountains streaked with snow and wispy, orange clouds. Every path, meadow, fence, road, hill here was blanketed in thick, unbelievably bright wildflowers, in colors so rich you’d think someone spilled paint on them. We waded through their tangled beauty, their smells staying ever present on our clothes — the scent of melted sugar cubes, maple honey, vanilla and crisp green apples.

After Romania, we arrived back in Sofia, where in a matter of 12 hours we returned the car, got a nominal amount of sleep, then immediately got on a bus the next morning to knock out the last three countries before the trip came to a close: Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Because our car insurance didn't cover these three places, we decided to bus it: upwards of eight hours every two days moving from country to country, attempting to check off some of the smallest countries in the world.

These countries were starkly similar yet different in their own quirky ways; Macedonia had an obvious obsession with bridges and statues; Albania was dotted with tens of thousands of anti-nuclear concrete domes leftover from when it was still hiding in the shadows of its communist period; Kosovo had an amusing obsession with all things American and Bill Clinton (and yes, there is a statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Klinton Avenue next to the Hillary Shop).

Without a doubt, I left thinking that perhaps far Eastern Europe is the strangest, most unassuming, and most misunderstood corner of the world.

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

Father and daughter ride their bike across a bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

To See the Northern Lights

It was my final night in the Arctic.

We hiked for two miles through heavy snow under the bent limbs of silver trees. At around midnight, we reached a high clearing, where we only paused to catch our breath and readjust our snowshoes, all the while making quiet, solemn jokes to lighten the mood. Because of the cloud coverage the night before and the seemingly heavy clouds we were having that night as well, it seemed that our chances of seeing the Northern Lights were quickly fading. I'd emptied my pockets to spontaneously fly 4,000 miles to spend just shy of a week in Sweden's Abisko National Park, high above the Arctic Circle where the sun never rose, with the ambitious hopes of seeing the Earth's spectacular natural light show. The aurora borealis has held a rather significant hold on my heart since I was about 11 years old and I became mesmerized with surreal photographs of the Northern Lights in a National Geographic magazine. 

Fast forward to January, 2015, and there I was. Under heavy gray clouds, we paused. Looked at each other, wondering whether to go on or turn around.

But then, out of the corner of my eye,
I saw that the clouds had cleared.

I always told my family that if there was one thing on this planet I had to do before I die, it's see the Northern Lights.

And I did.

The aurora that night was so unusually spectacular that we ended up making a campfire and sat in the snow for four hours as we watched the rays of color streak across the sky. Aurora Borealis doesn’t just sit there and fade. They are exactly as you've dreamed. They dance. They literally dance. They shimmered, they rippled, they waved, they exploded. Exploded. We saw emerald greens, reds, and turquoise woven into white. At one point, and only for a few seconds, right above me was the heart of it all; the epicenter where the aurora explodes on to the earth's atmosphere, where light was radiates streaks in every direction from a center ball of light -- the eye of the aurora, locals told me, which is rare to see. Colors illuminated the sprawling lake at the base of the mountain we sat on, and they touched the jagged snowy horizon from the north to the south, west to the east. Over the fire, we boiled hot lingonberry tea, and as we sipped it out of paper cups and laid with our frozen noses pointed up towards the stars, a local man sat by me and told me, “I have been living in Lapland for almost a decade. And these lights tonight are the best I have seen in years.”

For four hours, we stayed quiet. We sat still. Listened to the fire; listened to a pack of wolves or dogs, somewhere, howling. And we watched the lights.

I can’t possibly put into words what this experience was like, and all this time later, I'm still fathoming how to describe it.

Hours later, I stumbled in an ethereal stupor back to my guesthouse, smelling of campfire smoke, my hair tangled in icy knots, sweet berry tea on my lips, and my cheeks damp and salty from frozen tears.

That night I dreamt of green; of red; of howling wolves; a ribbon painted with color, appearing before my eyes.

I still do.

 

If you want to see the Northern Lights yourself this winter, even if you're on a tight budget or schedule,
here's how I did it.

  • Tickets to Oslo from the U.S. are generally cheap in January, so use that opportunity. Once in Olso, spend a full day or two in the city getting acquainted, adjusted to the time zone, and enjoying the quiet, clean, colorful streets of the Norway capital.

  • From Oslo, take a quick flight to Narvik, a small city far above the Arctic Circle.

  • Daily trains depart from Narvik's main station to Abisko National Park, on the other side of the border, deep in Sweden's frozen tundra. The train trip is about 3 hours, but the journey is unforgettable. (Also, don't be surprised if you're the only one on the entire 8-car train).

  • In Abisko, stay at any of the hotels, but I recommend the Abisko Guesthouse. Next to a decent grocery store, small pub, a lovely 30 minute walk on a moonlit path to the main tourist center (although you can arrange car transfers if you don't want to walk), and 5-10 minutes walk to the massive Abisko lake (excellent for aurora watching). The Guesthouse is reasonably priced for its clean (and warm!) facilities, full kitchen with adjoined large common room, reception area where you can book any activity imaginable, and mostly, a fantastic staff. I really have yet to stay at a guesthouse or hostel where I've adored the staff as much as I did here.

  • Spend at least 3 nights in Abisko. This will give you three chances to see the Lights, and will give you time to get your feet on the ground. I'll be honest: Abisko is extremely disorienting. By noon, the sky is already sinking back into darkness from its steady bluish-mauve tone that it takes on between 10 AM and 2 PM, so it feels like you've wasted the day even if you've only had a cup of coffee and taken a short walk. (If you come in late January or February, you may get some sunlight reflecting on the trees as the sun almost crests the mountain horizon, but you won't actually see the sun for some time).

  • Because of this, I recommend booking plenty of activities before you arrive to be sure that your schedule is full, and to be sure they don't fill up. (Activities such as: dog sledding, snow shoeing, visiting the Sky Station, ice climbing, meeting a herd of reindeer, or even taking a day trip to Narvik or nearby Kiruna to visit the famous Ice Hotel and meet the inhabitants of Sweden's northernmost Arctic city.

  • Bring spare fully-charged camera batteries with you, as the -28*F drains batteries within an hour; and, bring your warmest gloves, hand warmers, face masks, boots, socks, and hats imaginable. The Guesthouse will supply you with heavy-duty Arctic suits to withstand the extreme temperatures, but your extremities will be at risk, and there is a very real possibility of frostbite; consider your face, hands, and feet when packing. You want to be warm and dry.

  • If you want to get photos of the Lights, don't forget your camera tripod. And practice learning how to take long exposure star photos so you can be sure to capture the landscape. (Hint: ISO 1200, f/stop 3.5, shutter speed 30 seconds, lens on manual and focused on furthest point, and if you don't have a cable release, turn your camera on a timer so when you press the shutter button you don't cause camera shake)

  • After Abisko, back track down to Oslo, and fly home. If you want to extend your wintry stay in Scandinavia, you can spend a night or two in Narvik, or explore Norway's Lofoten Islands (although they are notoriously cloudy in the winter, so be sure you get your fill of the Lights in Abikso in case you see none in Lofoten), or stop over in Stockholm; there is nothing like that city in a light snowfall with a cup of hot chocolate in your hands.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

A dog team pulls his musher

A dog team pulls his musher

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

Frozen forests of Lapland

Frozen forests of Lapland