A Little Photoessay… Two Weeks of Nuance & Culture in Japan

The chaos of Tokyo crashed over me in waves when I first landed in Japan. I had booked my tickets on a whim—I found an affordable last-minute flight and jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, I had time to secure a Japan Rail pass, which allowed me to zip around the country on the speedy Shinkansen bullet trains for a discounted price, but beyond that, I had precious few things in place for my two week trip throughout Japan.

And perhaps it’s due to the tidy and orderly nature of life in Japan, but it all worked out, somehow. I had a few cultural snafus (it’s bound to happen to every traveler), I got terribly lost more than once (par for the course for me!), and I struggled to find vegetarian food. Those hiccups, however, only added to my wonder and joy. Despite usually working during all of my travels, I set aside my laptop and played the consummate tourist for two weeks, exploring the iconic and less-iconic parts of Japan.

And having spent only two weeks there, I can hardly claim expertise, especially since I spent them overwhelmed, my eyes wide and curious at every turn. Japanese history and culture are preserved to perfection. I delighted when I discovered a new cultural quirk. And I marveled at the feeling of anonymity when the crowds in Tokyo swept me through the streets. There was immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. It’s a country that I’d recommend to anyone with a curiosity about a thoroughly modern, technologically-advanced country that defies the idea of Westernized development.

Think of what follows as the storybook version of two weeks in Japan (my Japan Travel Guide shares the nitty-gritty details). This photo essay is a snapshot of what it looks like to sink into the travel experience in one of the world’s most fascinating countries, highlighting where to go, what to see, and the experiences you should seek out.

arashiyama bamboo forest

Shukkei-en Garden hiroshima

girls posing selfie in Kamakura

Kofuku-ji temple

Shibuya, Tokyo

Shibuya represented the Japan I had anticipated—bright lights, vibrant colors, pulsing energy, and so. many. people. A friend from college lives in Japan, a lucky circumstance that guaranteed mea familiar face to lead me through my first days in Tokyo. She navigated us through the metro’s maze and the surging mass of people while I tagged along in confused awe.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

shibuya japan

Zojo-ji Temple & Tokyo Tower

After the heady rush of adrenaline in Shibuya, our next stop juxtaposed that modernity with a slice of quiet and reflection. At Zōjō-ji Temple, the Jizō statues humbled me. These petite statues live in The Garden of Unborn Children and are the first thing you see when entering the temple. Tiny gifts, clothes, and rock piles adorn most statues—it’s a pretty and sweet sight, and as a foreigner, I initially had no clue what they signified. These gifts shorten the unborn child’s trip to the afterlife. The statues rest under giant trees, and the pinwheels near each statue whir in the breeze. Beautiful and a little haunting, this temple was a fascinating first glimpse at Japanese beliefs and customs related to death and the afterlife.

Towering over this quiet garden and temple is the bright orange column of Tokyo Tower. With observation decks at 150 and 250 meters, views from the top include 360 degree sweeping views over the cityscape. I loved peeking into the neighborhoods. Like a bird soaring overhead, I peered down at the shapes and colors of streets and buildings.

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Temple in the background

views from top of tokyo tower tokyo tower in japan

tokyo cityscape from tokyo tower

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Much of Japanese culture is centered around specific customs and rituals. When visiting the shrines and temples, tradition and culture are baked into every aspect. After entering the wooden torii gate at Meiji Shrine, we stopped to admire the large wall of saké barrels. These are decorative barrels, never filled with saké in actuality, but instead are representative of a larger donation. According to custom, Meiji Shrine accepts donations from saké producers across the country on behalf of the many smaller shrines. A decorative empty saké barrel accompanies each gift and is then displayed at the shrine’s entrance; shrines throughout Japan use this  gifted saké for celebrations and holidays. Each barrel is gorgeous and unique.

Once we admired the artful barrels, it was to onward to the temple, with a quick stop at the ablution pavilion, where water basins and ladles allow visitors to perform temizu, before entering, which is a symbolic cleansing signifying the removal of evil and pollution.

Yoyogi Park Torii Gate to enter Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 sake barrels at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo

Meiji Shrine religious hand washing

Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

The train system in Japan is phenomenal, and affordable if you have time to secure the tourist-only Japan Rail pass before you leave. I took a day trip to Kamakura, a beachside town near Tokyo. At Hase-dera Temple, I found an enchanting moss garden that is surely where the fairies and elves live. The entire temple complex wound through the woods. Families worshipped and tourists wandered. I found a strange little inlet where few people peaked. Towering trees shaded the gentle mist cooling the entire garden, which kept the delicate floor of moss vibrant and healthy.

Elsewhere in the temple, I found more Jizō statues. I had first encountered Jizō statues at the Garden of Unborn Children in Tokyo, and was intrigued to see this other representation. Jizō is a beloved and popular Japanese Bodhisattva known to alleviate the suffering of the living and the dead. And a fun fact, Jizō is also the patron saint of travelers—I mimicked the locals and gave him a gentle splash of water for my journey.

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

worshipping at Jizō Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Little girl pours water shrine at hase-dera temple kamakura

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Buddha, Kamakura

The most famous part of Kamakura is the gorgeous bronze Buddha statue at Kōtoku-in, which dates to around 1252. It’s a beautiful statue, and I love the way bronze streaked and aged over the centuries, visually marking the passage of time. The statue is 40+ feet tall and used to be entirely gilded, but now there are just faint traces of that gold on his face. The sign outside the temple noted that it is The Temple of Buddha and the gate of the eternal, marking it as an important spot in Japanese Buddhism. I didn’t make it to the interior viewing because the line was insane (I visited during Golden Week), but apparently you can view up into the statue and see the graffiti left there throughout the years.

Kōtoku-in temple giant Buddha

Kōtoku-in is a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan Daibutsu at Kōtoku-in temple in Kōtoku-in buddha in kamakura

Temple and Beaches of Kamakura

Deep shadows hung over the city by the time I made it to my final stop in Kamakura, the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple. This is a beautiful temple complex, perhaps one of the most peaceful that I found in and around Tokyo. I watched the sun begin to set on the reflection pond while sitting underneath a blossoming arbor of gorgeous wisteria. Earlier in the day I had wandered to the nearby beach, but there was an algae bloom tinting the water orange, so I didn’t stick around long.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple Kamakura Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple the torii gate at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine  reflection pool Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

kamakura beach with red tide algae

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Japan’s history fills every corner of the islands, and I could have spent months just traveling to the cities and towns near Tokyo. I visited Kawagoe one day, and it is a charming city known for handmade sweets. After a few days in Tokyo, however, it was time to head to Kyoto, a city drenched in history at every turn. During my weeks in Japan, I played the consummate tourist and spent my days far from my computer, instead wandering in and out of elaborate gardens and towering temples.

Kiyomizu-dera is among the most celebrated temples in the country. Founded in 780, the name means “Pure Water” and was so named because the Otowa Waterfall trickles down a ledge and into the temple complex.

Kiyomizu-dera kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera in kyoto Kiyomizu-dera Views from the main balcony Kiyomizu-dera temple statue at Kiyomizu-dera temple

The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera

Views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Around Kyoto, Japan

The Kyoto of my imagination was one that I had romanticized by reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a young’un. I pictured small lanes winding through low-slung buildings. I could hear the squeaking of carriages and the click of geisha heels. The reality is a far cry different. Kyoto is huge. It’s a modern city glinting with steel and glass. And yet, it’s still quaint and historic too. I found atmospheric lanes and aging wooden houses. While I didn’t spot a geisha, truthfully, I didn’t look too hard. Instead, I looked for the hidden gardens hiding towering bamboo. I watched a beautiful interpretive dance performance at small temple. I found historic aqueducts leading to tiny caves. A roadside cart converted into a cat hotel. I found the traditional, the ancient, and the quirky.

old building in Kyoto

bamboo forest Kōdai-ji temple kyoto Kōdai-ji bamboo

Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts

steps near Shoren-in Temple The aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple Nanzen-ji Temple aqueduct

the Path of Philosophy kyoto Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Temple sand garden Ginkaku-ji Temple gardens cats on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, reflects beautifully in its garden pond. Throughout my time in Japan I found myself in awe of the precision of each garden and the fastidious care with which each temple scene is created. It’s all so reflective of the orderly and careful Japanese culture that I discovered over my two weeks in the country. This temple, which is formally named Rokuon-ji, was was oddly reminiscent of Myanmar for me. Very few of Japan’s temples and statues are gilded, so viewing this showy temple reminded me of all the vast amounts of gold leaf used throughout Myanmar on every surface of their religious statues and buildings.

And even more fun than just visiting this temple, I met up with an ALA reader Moira and her family. We had emailed in the lead-up to her round the world trip about the route and how she would school her two children from the road. I was delighted to discover that my impromptu trip to Japan meant that I would cross paths with them during their last stop. We wandered the temple complex and then found a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant nearby to talk travel. Hearing their stories of a year on the road together was a highlight of my time in Kyoto.

Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

school kids at Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Having already confessed to reading the book, I’ll cop to seeing the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, too. For anyone who has seen it, the movie beautifully ends with the orange gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine. The torii gates create a long tunnel snaking up the side of a forested mountain. It’s just as stunning in person. Light dappled through the tree and slanted through the tightly packed gates, which are donated by Japanese businesses because Inari is the long-believed patron of business. The shrine dates to 711, which is so many centuries back that my mind boggles.

伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine school girls at Fushimi Inari Shrine torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

garden Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi-Inari Shrine Fushimi-Inari Shrine School girls walk through the iconic orange torii gates Fushimi-Inari Shrine

The Gardens of Nara, Japan

Perhaps the prettiest garden in all of Japan is in Nara. I say this having not visited them all. Instead, I merely assert that I can’t imagine anything prettier than Isuien Garden. Traveling through Japan taught me more about garden landscaping than I thought possible. Isuien Garden a technique called shakkei; it borrows the surrounding landscape to form a perfectly stacked composition. The far temple is a part of Todai-ji temple and the mountains beyond reflect prettily in the pond waters. I wandered these gardens on a warm Saturday afternoon and then decided to sit on a bench for a bit to read and absorb the scene.

Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Isuien Garden in Nara japan Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Okochi-Sanso Villa in the Arashiyama District

Isuien Garden in Nara japan The gardens of Japan.

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s because of Komokuten, one of a pair of fierce, giant guardians of the Great Buddha. The massive guardians were an unexpected addition to the temple; they are there to guard the Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world. They make an impressive addition to an already stunning temple.

Todai-ji

Komokuten in nara, japan Komokuten Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan Aging copper at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan.

Around Nara

Oh the whole, Nara is a sweet city. Although I know some people visit for several days, I took a day trip from Kyoto and found it was enough time to soak in the vibe. The bowing deer add an unmistakable charm to the visit, and I delighted in feeding them all day long each time I met one in the parks and temples all over town. I love that the cookie in the first photo makes it look like the deer is smiling.

Besides the deer, the massive temple, and that gorgeous garden, there are several other beautiful spots. I spent the last hours of sunlight admiring the view from Nigatsu-dō Temple, and wandering among the moss-covered stone lanterns at Kasuga-taisha Shrine.

nara bowing deer

bowing deer Nara, japan Bowing deer of Nara nara japan

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Nigatsu-dō temple  sunset Kofuku-ji Temple

park in nara  Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Eating All the Things

Japan isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly place in the world—that distinction goes to India—but boy is there plenty to eat. Soups were always easy to find and tasty to consume. And in Hiroshima, I had my hands-down favorite dish of the entire trip, okonomiyaki. It’s a savory pancake-like dish and the vegetarian version has noodles, batter, egg, and piles of cabbage—then it’s all topped with a tasty sauce.

hiroshima style okonomiyaki

Seaweed and spinach, yum!

Hiroshima Shrine

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s a necessary visit for anyone traveling through the city, but especially fellow Americans.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Miyajima Island & Floating Torii

Head to Miyajima Island and plan to spend the day. I know that many people pop over just to see the floating torii, but it’s a gorgeous island. I was down to my final day of travel before needing to journey back to Tokyo for my flight home, so I decided to make a good adventure out of it. I took the cable-car to the near top of the mountain, and then hiked the last 30 minutes for sweeping views of the Japanese coastline. I hiked back down in time for a stunning sunset. And as if the hike and shrine were not reason enough to spend the day, they have bowing deer, too! :)

bowing deer miyajima island

bowing deer of japan Itsukushima Shrine with the tide in floating ferry to miyajima island

cable car on miyajima island

views from Mt. Misen Mt. Misen miyajima

tide out on Itsukushima shrine

Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Selfie with the floating torii gate!

Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island


Visiting Japan was an experience almost frozen in time. I had long dreamed of visiting, but the cost and the culture clash had always kept me from booking my ticket. I hiked mountains, visited temples, slurped soup, and studied the people. It was a fascinating and contradictory two weeks and among the most interesting places I’ve ever traveled.

Planning a trip to Japan? The detailed Travel Guide to Japan outlines possible routes, nitty-gritty details, and a collection of tips and advice sourced from the ALA community. And visit the Japan Rail site, where you can secure the JR pass before you leave home—it saved me hundreds and freed me to visit more places since the train costs were all included in the pass.
maasai east africa exploitation

A Little Story… How One Maasai Tribe Is Changing the Face of Responsible Tourism

The sharp guffaw of a wild baboon startled me from sleep. Close as a whisper, the eerie sound ricocheted through my dreams. I awoke in full fight or flight response mode. My eyes whipped open, careening around the space; they slowly adjusted to the soft ochre light emanating from the banked campfire. From somewhere outside the dim glow came soothing melodic murmurs. The language was at once familiar from my months in East Africa, yet incomprehensible.

My heartbeat slowed as my consciousness caught up with my surroundings. A wall of trees shrouded our campsite, creating an impenetrable ring of darkness. A carpet of thick bush began a mere spitting distance from my sleeping spot. Again, a flurry of baboon calls crept across the Loita Plains. The sound echoed in the far distance; it had seemed closer in my disoriented dregs of half-sleep. The ground murmured nearby; my gaze collided with the smiling eyes of Quela, a Maasai warrior and my fearless guide. His head quirked to the side, offering quiet reassurance.

A cushion of sage leaves hugged me as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. Deep breaths filled my lungs with gentle, sage-scented air. The shooting stars overhead left fiery trails—a riot of stars more numerous than I had ever before seen. A Fourth of July sparkler had splattered its joy across the sky. It was just shy of 4am and I was alone, but not. An earthly quiet settled over the night—a quiet that hummed with noise. The slow and methodic breathing of fellow travelers acted as a metronome for my thoughts. Moments and memories played like a slideshow across that canvas of glittering night sky.

maasai experience kenya women in shukas

Five days at the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. It seemed impossible. Time had contracted. Instead of measuring days, I had counted moments. I had collected hundreds of moments. Moments of learning, moments of beauty, and moments of friendship.

That first morning at Maji Moto, I woke with a happy jolt. My body wakes with the sun each day, and a quick glance out my window confirmed that darkness was giving way to light. I threw on my shuka, a colorful wrap the Maasai had gifted to me the night before. It braced me against the cool morning. Snatching my camera, I darted from our circle of manyattas, small mud huts that were well-appointed and cozy. I live for a good sunrise and I was looking forward to watching this one.

I walked to the edge of the campsite. The cool breeze ruffled the leaves and a snap of sticks sounded from the Maasai campfire nearby. Creeping into a new day, the sun began to tint the landscape. The sunrise washed Kenya’s Great Rift Valley in a pastel wonderland. A rising chatter of birds emanated from the thicket of trees—they were excited, too. Mirroring the shutter of my camera, I mentally froze that moment, pressing it into my memory.

review of Salaton's Maji Moto Culutral Camp in Kenya

sunrise in Maasai Mara ethically visit the Maasai of East Africa and experience sunrise in the Maasai Mara National Park sustainable tourism Kenya

After sunrise, and with the rest of the camp still drowsing, I grabbed my book and headed for the dining area. My visit to this Maasai camp in Kenya was the cornerstone experience of my four months in East Africa. Although I rarely plan my travels beforehand, I had booked this week at the Maji Moto Cultural Camp long before the other moving pieces and parts.

I visit social enterprises when I travel; it’s one of my favorite parts of discovering a new place. For months, I had corresponded with Susan, the U.S. facing partner of the Maji Moto camp. Now, I was finally in the one place where I could uncover answers to my many questions.

I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

In the months leading up to my visit, I had heard of canned tourist experiences with African tribes. Now that I was at Maji Moto, I again worried that my money had bought me a one-way ticket to cultural exploitation. Until now, my knowledge of the statuesque Maasai tribes came from the pages of National Geographic magazines. Over the years, internet shorthand and fading attention spans have reduced many ethnic groups to seductively exotic images. They are a blip on our Pinterest board. A rapid “like” in our Facebook feed. Deep thought has given way to a passing interest. In this digital world, we often forget to consider the stories behind those foreign faces and obscure traditions.

After an ethically sketchy slum tour in Cape Town, I had heightened my awareness of my lack of knowledge. There were questions larger than I was thinking to ask. There are issues in Africa deeper than outsiders can ever understand.

Ethical tourism is a complicated subject. The edges and boundaries of responsible travel experiences are soft and porous. Something unprecedented and innovative in one community might unravel in another. The underlying belief that there is a panacea to perceived problems has wrought havoc in Africa. But, I also believe that effective avenues of responsible tourism exist; there are ways to visit the region and support projects that steer far clear of the exploitative models of past colonialism. African-led businesses are solving local social issues and locals are shaping their own communities. But finding these voices among the cacophony of outside development solutions is difficult.

And so above all else, I hoped my presence at Maji Moto lived within the precept of “do no harm.” I wasn’t there to volunteer—I have no skills needed in their communities. Nor did I visit with a mission to change them. I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

campfire songs with the Maasai

Over my five days at the cultural camp, Salaton Ole Ntutu, the charismatic Maasai warrior chief of Maji Moto, led our small group through the customs of traditional Maasai life. With members of Maji Moto’s Maasai tribe as guides, we walked through the Loita Hills and learned the names of medicinal plants. We watched sunset from a rock outcropping. We sang around the campfire each evening. Grounding each day, we visited the local projects that run, in part, with support from the cultural camp.

On the surface, our trip was a simple way for us tourists to responsibly engage with the Maasai culture. Underneath, the cultural camp is a single string in a wider, interlocking web of projects bound by Salaton’s a vision and careful execution.

There’s the Enkiteng Lepa primary school, a gated building on a dusty dirt road a short walk from the cultural camp. That first day at Maji Moto, Rose walked us to the school. A dry baking heat pulsed around us as Rose explained the school’s importance to her community. Although it looks like schools most anywhere in the world—rows of windows, space to run—this one is unique. Enkiteng Lepa emphasizes two primary learning goals: a modern education and a comprehensive understanding of Maasai traditions.

It’s this adherence to traditions that underpinned so much of what I learned at Maji Moto. Although Salaton has created a modern tourism model for his community, every new project sympathetically marries modern development and cultural preservation. It’s this balance that has made his work successful. In addition to the school, the Cultural Camp supports a widow’s village and a girls dormitory.

Widows are unable to remarry in traditional Maasai culture, nor can they own property. As a result, many face difficulties supporting themselves and their children. Maji Moto’s Widow’s Village gives the women a support network they traditionally lack. It also provides them with a source of income—the women teach beadwork to the tourists and sell their exquisite, intricate jewelry.

One other piece of Salaton’s vision had a significant effect on my perception of the Maji Moto Cultural Camp. Salaton and other key leaders in his community are leading a campaign against early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within the Maasai community. He began this work with his mother, a renowned medicine woman and shamanic healer.

Over decades, many foreign NGOs and international groups have campaigned as outsiders against this practice. Salaton, his mother, and local Maasai leaders envisioned a different path that would shift attitudes and traditions. Together, their internal campaign is strong but mighty. It has the ability to affect lasting change in the practice of FGM among the Maasai. Together, they put in motion a movement that ripples across not only his community, but throughout East Africa.

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

ceremony at Maasai Widow's Village in Kenya Rose; review of Maji Moto Cultural Camp what it's like to meet Maasai women

Fighting for education in the Maasai tribes of East Africa exploring the Loita Plains near Maji Moto

The lake near Maji Moto, Kenya.

On my last evening at the camp, Meeri, one of my Maasai guides that week, shared with me her story. We were walking to a camping spot about two hours from the village. The Maasai had promised us a night of friendly conversation, singing by the campfire, and sleeping under the stars. Meeri and I walked side-by-side over the shrubby savannah.

She wasn’t always a part of the Maji Moto community. At her family’s prompting, Meeri dropped out the fourth grade to become circumcised and married. When most preteens are dreaming of their future goals, Meeri became the fifth wife of an old man. Not long after their marriage, her husband died. Meeri, however, was already pregnant. Her husband’s wives and their eldest sons seized Meeri’s possessions and forced her to leave.

She went to her father, but he denied her reentry into the family—he had received a dowry and did not want to return it. Meeri had few options.

She had vague knowledge of a widow’s village in a different Maasai camp; she set out alone and determined. She walked for three days. Each night, she slept in trees to avoid the wild animals. Once at Maji Moto, the community welcomed her. She now had a new future. The Widow’s Village provided Meeri with a support system that most Maasai communities lack. The other widows offered to raise Meeri’s child so she could return to school and continue her education.

The sun hung lower as Meeri and I walked, the soft tread of my uneven gait scuffed the dusty rocks. Although Merri’s words looped through my mind, Meeri continued with enthusiasm when she spoke of her future. Having finished at the local school, Meeri planned to continue her education. She hoped to become a certified guide. Her long-term goal was to lead tours through the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve.

After a time, Meeri left me to my thoughts. It was a lot to digest.

eliminating FGM among the Maasai

Meeri

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

Walking the Maasai Mara in search of our camping spot for the night — we hit a goat traffic jam.

Salaton, a Maasai chief in Kenya working to end FGM among the Maasai. goats on the plains

A rock outcropping near Maji Moto.

Stories have the power to change us. Stories use a steel cable to cinch humanity closer; they bind us across cultures, time, and space. Once you have created a new story of a place, that connection can never be undone. It changes your perception of foreign events in far-off places. I will always have a connection to Kenya. A tapestry of stories bind me to the Maasai. In the span of a few days, I had solidified my once abstract associations. And though the Maasai had become more than just the magazine images from my youth, even more I realized that my role here was as a tourist.

The cultural camp affords the Maasai control over how the tourists experience their culture. Maji Moto’s mission is to create an experience that facilitates connections and stories between Maasai and tourists, while controlling outside impact on their culture. I would leave Maji Moto with a new story of East Africa’s Maasai and with a connection to a people different from my home country. But I would also leave behind my tourism dollars and the far greater impact that money has on this community’s ability to build and shape its future.

My moments of pressing introspection upon hearing Meeri’s story passed in a heartbeat. With alacrity, we arrived at our camping spot. Other warriors had arrived before us. They had prepared a bed of sage leaves for those who wanted to sleep outside, a few tents for others, and the beginnings of a large campfire. A goat rested in the corner; he would soon become dinner.

Once the sun had retired, we gathered around the campfire. Late into the night, I listened to the Maasai warriors converse through song. Melodies echoed with deep reverberations into the night. Some songs included high-pitched catcalls strong enough to pierce the star-studded sky. The Maasai’s contagious joy outlasted me; I crawled onto my sage pallet and into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep to the soft cadence of conversation as it warred with the rustling leaves and the distant hoot of birds.

Our group visiting the Maji Moto Camp, I was the only non-doctor or nurse in the group. Quela, a Maasai warrior who taught me so much about Maasai life. An elder in the community at Maji Moto helping to support women and stop FGM within the Maasai.

One of the Maasai warriors spins the stick quickly to create friction! the Maasai lighting a fire by hand learning how to make a campfire

roasting goat over a campfire

Traditional Maasai songs and dance. Experiencing an evening of Maasai song over a campfire

In the two years since I visited Maji Moto, I have pressed each moment into my memory bank. Like a treasured flower pressed into an age-worn book, some memories have faded with the passing of time. But like that flower, each time I open the book, memories rush back to me. Textures, colors, and scents fill each memory.

My time at Maji Moto is memorable for more than providing me weeklong glimpse into a different culture. Pressed into my memories are those moments of human connection. There’s Meeri’s crinkling smile as I peppered her with questions. I have forever preserved Quela’s infectious laugh as I misidentified the local medicinal herbs growing in the fertile plains. I open that book and I hear Salaton’s measured lilt as he spoke of his passion to preserve his culture through innovative sustainable tourism programs.

The Maji Moto camp, and the people who welcomed me, crafted the tourism experience that I didn’t know I needed. My visit landed squarely in the camp of cultural tourism. Salaton and the elders designed our experience to steer far clear of the cultural exploitation rampant elsewhere. Each moment was guided by a visionary chief working to define what modern responsible tourism looks like for the Maasai of East Africa.

The Maji Moto Cultural Camp operates year-round. They offer multi-night stays at the camp and safaris to the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve. Earlier this year, A Little Adrift readers visited with their two kids; they reported back that they had a wonderful family experience. The Maasai warriors are great with kids and have a range of activities designed to engage and interest them (from beadwork to warrior training). Be sure to book through the site linked here as the similarly named eco-camp nearby is not a part of this social enterprise.

A Little Adventure… Going on an Incredible Safari in Tanzania’s National Parks

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater

The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.

The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Friends first put Guanajuato on my radar when I was looking for a small town to travel to with my niece Ana. Those travel plans fell through and I forgot about Guanajuato until I looked at my notebook and saw the city was directly on my upcoming travel path. This town has a perfect mix of tourists/locals—local sites are in Spanish because the majority of tourists visiting Guanajuato are local within Mexico. My Spanish got better quickly! :)

With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.

Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Mountains and hills surround Guanajuato, which makes for great hiking but variable weather too. The weather alternated between warm and sunny to cool and overcast, but that didn’t stop the town squares from filling with vendors and locals in late afternoon to snack and chat.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The steep hillsides throughout Guanajuato make deliveries quite tough. My hostel had a vertical 10 minute walk up a hillside — these pack animals (are they donkey or mules, no clue) wandered along the main boulevard behind their owner for a spate of deliveries each day.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Charmed by the cobblestone streets throughout San Miguel de Allende, I spent both days on photo walks through town talking to the vendors and exploring the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots for coffee and tacos. Though expats and language schools fill San Miguel, the locals were friendly and keen for conversation as I wandered.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Following the common street-food wisdom of “find the longest line and eat there” I found this woman whipping out tacos, quesadillas, and a number of things I could not name. I ventured for a corn gordita stuffed with cheese and nopal (shredded cactus) — the conventional wisdom served me well because it was delicious!
Guanajuato, Mexico
Translation: “In Mexico, a day without chili is like a day without sun.” They take this sentiment to heart because there were days the tears streamed down my cheeks as I ate. :)
Guanajuato, Mexico
These guys worked on the corner I had to walk past to leave my hostel and head into town and they were hilarious. I often had my camera slung across my shoulder and one night they were quick to call me over and insist I take a photo of the guy on the left. More specifically, they told me I just couldn’t leave Guanajuato without a photograph of his bigote … which means mustache. I obliged (photo here . . . it is an impressive ‘stache) and they collapsed into laughter; afterwards, each time I passed by the street stand they erupted into rousing cheers.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
School children play kickball in San Miguel de Allende’s main courtyard and as the sun slipped lower, more children must have finished their homework because they all burst into the central plaza to join the game.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The Catedral de Guanajuato, the main church in the city dominates the downtown skyline and created a buzzing square of activity joining the various areas of town. In the evenings street-food stalls set up in the cathedral’s shadow to pedal tacos, churros, and treats to the nighttime crowds.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
More like a castle at Disney World than a parish church in the heart of colonial Mexico, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is a gorgeous pink sandstone gothic church right in the city center.

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico
A wander through the back-alleys of Guanajuato twist and turn up the hillsides. I loved the cactus plants and colors accenting this house . . . bright and charming in the warm Mexican sun.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
One of my favorite dishes (and one that is hard to find vegetarian), this tortilla soup was perfect on the cool overcast days (honestly, I ate it almost every day).
Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage town center, is often voted one of the 10 prettiest colonial cities in Mexico and it’s easy to see why. I took this shot from the Alhóndiga de Granaditas — the museum is wonderful, only in Spanish, and filled with school children if you go too late in the day.
Guanajuato, Mexico
A colorful town square in downtown Guanajuato with a delicious veggie restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas just to the right — tasty and affordable if you’re needed a specifically vegetarian fix (and that can happen in Mexico a lot given how much cheese I ate day in and day out).
mexico
The twins on the right raced me to the top of the hillside in San Miguel while their mother laughed at our antics. Naturally, they beat me to the top, but I was rewarded with some chatter with their mom as I caught my breath before continuing up the hill. The mariachi player on the right was a sweet older gentleman who serenaded me as I journaled one afternoon in a courtyard in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Journaling in a shady courtyard with my afternoon coffee at hand — my best blog posts and introspection are written in longhand, so this is how you usually find me on a random afternoon on the road.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The pretty, gothic church in San Miguel is lit up on the city’s skyline.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The view from my hostel in Guanajuato, which I loved. This was the reward for hiking uphill every day to La Casa de Dante.

Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were  a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.

What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.

What to ReadThe People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.

A Little Slice of Life… Snapshots of Mexico

Mexico surprised me with the hospitality and friends I found when I arrived at the beginning of the year with no real plans and no certain direction for my life. I flew into Puerto Vallarta sure that I would visit with friends who were living near there for a month, and then move onto another region filled with colonial towns. I loved the little town of San Pancho so much that I decided to stay put for four months and live in this small Mexican beach town. Well, at least until it was time to seek out those colonial pueblas at a breakneck pace and make my way to my overland to Mexico City so I could catch a flight to Costa Rica.

I wasn’t sure the pretty colonial towns could get prettier, but Ana was right on when she told me this pink, turreted church in San Miguel de Allende looks like a castle at Disney World.

I arrived in Costa Rica a few days ago, and my dad and Ana arrived last night. Our plan is to explore a bit here and then travel together to Panama, where my dad grew up living in the Canal Zone. As I end the Mexico portion of my travels for the next while, I wanted to share highlights from my Instagram feed and camera roll over the past four months. One of the things I love about Instagram is that photos often capture moments, angles, or snapshots in a way I don’t usually share on the blog. The entire medium is intended more as a slice of life type sharing and it appeals to me a lot, even as I go in the exact opposite with my own photography (my 2013 goal is to fully understanding manual mode and everything my nice travel camera can do by the end of the year!).

I’ll be offline for a couple of days now as my family and I cross into Panama and go exploring, but I’ll share those adventures via Facebook in the coming days and weeks … and likely in the coming months on the stories since I am a few months (years?) behind on the blog.  :)

Photos of Colonial Towns in Mexico

Breakfast in Mexico: scrambled egg burrito topped with salsa picante, mashed avocado, and crema. (That offensive olive was an oversight, I picked the others off).

Sunshine, blue skies, and palm trees—my constant companion from day one. I don’t think it rained more than five times the entire time I was there … which is likely why it’s considered high season!

Beach umbrellas lined the beaches during Easter week as the city-dwellers fled to the coast; the town swelled with people and the main upside was the new street food vendors who descended on our town!

Kiddos play in a pool at the water’s edge because the surf on our beach is too strong for them (and me, if I’m being honest). I just love their little sun hats.

A day of fun with friends who also lived in San Pancho — we coated ourselves in therapeutic blue mud at a hidden beach about a an hour or two from our town. :)

Lunch at my favorite taco spot, Baja Takeria, for the tastiest taco in town; their chipotle sauce: so, so good.

Is there ever a reason to say no to churros? (No, there isn’t, especially when their served from a truck in Sayulita, Mexico!)

What is more Mexican than a roaming Mariachi band making their way through the market?

Music for all! A roaming mariachi band at La Penita weekly market. :)

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I mean yes, this puppy *is* the cutest thing ever; I found him on the beach and wanted to puppy-nap him.

Fresh coconuts anytime, only alarming part was the number of machetes laying around town. This was a perk to living in my tiny town; tiny specialized shops serviced every small niche you’d need, and it was all close together and walkable.

It’s a fresh coconut kinda day over here in Mexico :)

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Living in a beach town was a new one for me — every day included a trip to the sand and waves!

Why hello there Friday, I think I will go to the beach today.

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Sunset and stormy weather; the beautiful ones stacked on themselves and some nights I was just beside myself with how pretty they were. The sunset became a nightly ritual and many people in the town also gather for conversation, drinks, and nightly views like this.

Guacamole, a long-standing favorite snack, and my lunch several times a week since I found the perfect guac recipe through a friend here in town.

Guacamole. A reason for happiness. :)

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My friend Nick saw this guy fall from the ceiling of the community center, he’s on the window sill here recovering (and he did recover).

I found a new friend hanging out at the community center here in town. :)

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The delicious vegan café inside San Pancho’s community center.

A vegan paella, steamed artichoke, and lemon grass aguafresca was the surprise lunch on the cafe’s daily changing menu.

Speaking of aguafresca, this shot is from Guadalajara and shows just how many flavors they make on a hot day!

The town of Guanjuato is one of the prettiest places in colonial Mexico, and I loved that hardly a single soul spoke English to me in the five days I visited.

Unlike the beach town I lived in, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Guanajuato was buried in the mountains with dry, cool air.

Adios Guanjuato, que bonita eres. #Mexico

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Alhough I never drink soda, I am always intrigued to see which big corporations won the race … it seems Mexico is a Coke country.

A beautiful mural inside Darjeeling, my favorite bar (and pizza joint). Those eyes get me every time.

A beautiful mural here in town. Those eyes get me every time I see it.

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Mexico was partly work for me, so here I have a working breakfast with some wifi time along with my chilaquiles, oj, and coffee.

Tequila tasting with friends in San Pancho, tequila comes from that region so they make an art out of the tasting, sipping, clearing the palate, etc.

When friends came into town I was thrilled to go to the fancy hotel for breakfast and try prettily arranged dishes like this vegan chorizo.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady in Guadalajara is beautiful and a high point of walking the city’s downtown area.

One night I found a lovely altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe on my solo walk home. The streets were completely silent, all lights out in the houses … and these two votives flickering through the night.

Late afternoon in Sayulita, a small beach town about 20 minutes from San Pancho.

San Pancho had just the prettiest sunsets in the world. I loved living in this gorgeous little beach town. :)

 

Thanks so much for following the Mexican leg of my journey, I started traveling too quickly over the past couple weeks to share more about the tiny towns I visited on my overland travels after San Pancho, so those will come later this summer. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re there, I think it’s such a fun way to share more “in the moment” pieces of life on the road. What’s your favorite shot?

Cheers,

~S

A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an older version of myself. I step through the doors and past habits and attitudes flood my senses and course through my body. I was raised Christian and, since then, I moved onto a mixed bag of spirituality. I found it impossible these past years on the road not to identify with other cultures and religions as I met so many new people and stories and perspectives.

And although I love the temples of Asia—so much—last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms cedes the floor to customs and traditions ingrained in me since birth. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm; I give myself permission in holy places to release life’s stresses and the hurts. It’s the act of entering the church, not the service. It’s the learned behavior that here, in this special place, you can reflect and release. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church—no doubt an activity that made my grandma sigh in relief.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Eastern side of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain a grey afternoon at la sagrada familia

The Basilica is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. With two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava, I decided to play tourist. I was speaking at a conference in Girona, but I couldn’t pass the chance to finally experience Barcelona. Two days isn’t long, and having a speech to prep, I did only the bare minimum research. When visiting La Sagrada Familia, I knew two key facts: 1) it’s still under construction and 2) Antoni Gaudí designed it has his masterpiece. Gaudí was a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning, I started a long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online—more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. It was late September, and I had left my niece Ana home in the States while we decided if I would continue homeschooling her from the road.

For the first time in a year, I was back to traveling solo and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved through the lanes, lost in the pulse of city life. When I spotted a tiny nook of a café, I passed the rest of time with a hot Americano and my journal. It’s an interesting way to understand a city, to find a side-street and sit with locals. Eventually, with my time slot on the horizon, I walked toward the eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I walked.

I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I lament when they ebb from my own life, so as I wrapped the audio-guide around my head and absorbed myself in the story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become a the magnum opus of a century, not just a single artist.

Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past. He left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him—he worked on La Sagrada Familia from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when viewing the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast, the Passion façade offers a gaunt, and darker depiction.

The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:

Nativity façade of La Sagrada Familia.

architecture of the Nativity façade Gaudi's façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:

Passion façade; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The inside is exquisite, too.

The ceiling is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). Instead, I craned my neck and gawked to the descriptions on my audio-guide. Each footfall inside the church brought into view new twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward. Each heartbeat allowed a glimmer of sunlight to dapple through into the interior, as if bathing me in the warm breeze of an orchard.

Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

stained glass windows Inside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

I spent the better part of my afternoon wandering the huge church, then below in the museum looking at the plans and miniature projections of the completed project. Thanks to the magic of computers and technology (which Gaudí did not factor into his two-century timeline for completion of his masterpiece), La Sagrada Familia could be done as early as 2026. (I revisted the church five years later, in 2017, and the architects had made startling progress on the windows and interiors, as well as several of the towers!).

When I emerged from the church, I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine. The welcome change in the weather matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about how one man’s creativity and religious fervor could compel him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.

It blew my mind.

The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project—I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world, a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudí’s completed magnum opus.

Blue skies at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona


Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia

How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hourlong time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open on my first visit because of the rain, so I was only able to do that on my return in 2017. You can and must pre-book this as well—the tower view time slots go very quickly, so book at least two days ahead of time if that is your plan.

How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (so worth it! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2017, it costs €15 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica, €22 for the audioguide and museum too, and €29 to go up a tower and have an audioguide (if you book a tower view ticket, do not be late for your appointment time. (current prices)

Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.

When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.

Plan and Learn:  Every place is more interesting with back story; read a Guadí biography before you visit for a deeper perspective on this world-famous architect. This beautiful photographic collection showcases his work. And if you’re staying in Spain for a bit, consider the Spanish Lonely Planet as your guide, it was my go-to on both visits.

A Little Oasis … Fun, Mud, and Friends on Beach in Mexico

I found a slice of paradise last week. I rarely use terms like “paradise” because it feels overdone to claim each new place is better than the next. But in terms of where I was personally, this place was a slice of perfection for what I needed at that moment. From my town, the hike to this secluded mud beach is two hours; we cheated and a friend drove us to the top of the trail leading down to the beach, which meant we had to hike for about 45 minutes through the jungle before sighting patch of beach we would call home for the day.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

We erupted onto the beach (or at least I did since I slid and tripped on the trail more times than I’d like to cop to) as the trail’s steep slope abruptly ended on a quarter-mile stretch of sand bracketed on both ends by rocky outcroppings. The beach’s one drawback is a lack of shade, but beach-goers before us constructed a sturdy lean-to (a juxtaposition of terms but apt) from palm fronds and twine. With shade and a fire-pit we had the makings for a full day on our isolated beach, which we nicknamed Pandora since we were about to act out scenes from Avatar.

The beach’s strongest selling point is the blue therapeutic mud hidden in the walls lining the beach. Our ragtag group of eight embraced the prospect of slathering ourselves in mud with thorough enthusiasm and over the course of an hour we each became a unified shade of pale milky blue.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

And once coated, it was playtime while the clay soaked its healthful benefits into our skin.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

What day is complete without a jumping shot!

And when the mud so dry and caked into our skin that we could no longer move, we rinsed off in the ocean.

The rocks bracketing the beach were my favorite part of the day. These were rocks the universe planted at just the right height for me to crawl all over them to explore the nooks and crannies of life living in the pools of water. My friend’s puppy, Loki, joined me for the exploration and we hunted crabs, snails, and fish in the tiny tidal pools created from the force of the water cresting against the rocks.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

The boys in our group caught these (I am not fast enough and am always afraid I will squish them when I am trying to capture them!):

crab

hermit crab

shells

She looks all cute, but she’s a scaredy-cat and made me climb up on the high rocks to rescue her!

dog

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexicoa mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

It was a day of laughter, play, and friends in a setting most would call idyllic. :)

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

Bagan temples burma myanmar

A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest . . . would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.

The living legacy left in Bagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As Ana and I traveled through Myanmar, luck was with us that our visit aligned with our friends’ family travels in Myanmar as well. The mother is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, she and her family offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.

Views of many temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Starting in about 1044, Bagan’s wealthy rulers spent 250 years building up this ancient city. At the height of Bagan’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas. Building temples is a way for wealthy citizens to build merit, and for this reason temples both large and small were built and donated over the past century.

We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.

The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.

Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!)  from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.

Monks line up for alms in Bagan, Myanmar
Our small group prepared for our first day at the ruins as dawn settled over the region; these monks passed our guesthouse in the early morning hours on their almsgiving walk through town. Giving alms is a daily ritual throughout most of Southeast Asia and the act of giving builds merit for the giver. Locals give rice and food into the bowls of the monks as they pass by homes and shops; in this way, they pay respect to the monks and connect to their spirituality.

Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar Burma
The beautiful, gilded complex of temples and stupas at Shwezigon Pagoda attracted a handful of tourists in the dawn hours. The quiet energy humming through the temple captivated us. Sunrise hot-air balloons would have no doubt been a magical way to experience the first hours of lift shining over the 40 miles of temples, stupas and monasteries dotting the plains around Bagan, but we opted to stay on the ground this time.

These twin images side-by-side are an uncommon representation of Buddha. I have seen the Buddha depicted in hundreds of positions and facial expressions over the years, but these beatific smiles at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple shine with peace and happiness.

Dhammayangyi Pahto temple in Burma Myanmar
 The stunning, cavernous hallways at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple. This is a highlight and a a beautiful temple.

Ananda Paya temple in Bagan
The quiet sunrise hours have given way to the tour buses by mid-morning, and locals and tourist alike mix and merge on the paths leading to Ananda Paya temple.  Of note, and particularly interesting to the children in the group, was that this temple’s gilded top looks like a corn cob. :)

free water at the temples for pilgrims
The Burmese are generous with water and basic necessities. There were many instances where they could have charged for water, but instead the active temples and monasteries offered up jugs, canisters, and containers filled and free so that no one should go thirsty on their pilgrimage–some temples had very steep hikes!

Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in Myanmar
Ana and I posed for a shot together with the photogenic Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background.

Thatbyinnyu Temple in Bagan, Myanmar
Two doorways from two beautiful temples. The left is looking out at Thatbyinnyu Temple. The second one is the ornate entrance to the Hgnet Pyit Taung temple.

Burmese zodiac animal
Different animals represent different days of the week in the Burmese zodiac. The week day of your birth dictates which station and animal you should visit at the temples. There are eight stations because Wednesday is split into two different animals. This creature is the tiger and represents Monday; it’s worth researching your day of birth before you travel through Myanmar so you can pay respect through their cultural beliefs to your zodiac animal.

Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery
A vendor sells bouquets of flowers to pilgrims making their way up Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Sign about walking up Mt. Popa barefoot
You must have bare feet when entering any Buddhist temple. In this case, the sign is a reminder to the pilgrims hiking the stairs to the very top of the mountain that they must do so barefoot … while dodging monkeys!

777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa filled with monkeys
The temple monkeys are aggressive and hungry; they pester the pilgrims slowly making their way up the 777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa, all leading to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Htilominlo Temple details in Bagan
Intricate paintings inside of Htilominlo Temple have survived the centuries. This was just one of the many frescoes lining the walls. The most delicate and intricate of the paintings in some of the other temples are only lit by flashlights and prohibit photography as a way to ensure future generations can witness the beautiful artwork.

thanaka powder grinding block
The thanaka powder that the Burmese use on their faces actually comes from these sticks. They grind the thanaka on the stone, add water (or other creams in modern instances) and then apply to their skin for beauty, tradition, and skin protection.

sour plum candies in Bagan, Myanmar
On the side of the road a candy maker sells hand-rolled sour plum candies; although sweet candies from jaggery are popular all over the country, the sour plum flavor is unique to this region and it’s worth sampling some from many vendors as they come in varying levels of sour and sweet!

temples of bagan
This young and eager boy was our impromptu tour guide through one of the temple complexes.

Manuha temple buddha and Buddha in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa
Buddha on the left is from the Manuha temple, and the right one is unique. This Buddha sits in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa—the Buddha statue is adorned with hundreds of tiny Buddha images.

The Irrawaddy River runs along Bupaya pagoda and provided a welcome and cool breeze in the hot, late afternoon sun. Ana and I learned a lot before we left for Myanmar about the effect that major rivers have on trade and development within the countries in Southeast Asia, so it was interesting for us to watch the slow pace of life on this section of the river.

car full of people in Bagan, Burma
As the day started to wind down, the pickup trucks began to ferry all the locals back to their homes just as we (Ana, Aye, Em and I) rented a horse cart to take us to a sunset spot. Though tourists are common in Bagan, friendliness is an inherent part of Burmese culture and we got waves and smiles from every single passing truck.

Sunset at the Burmese temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Our second night in Bagan we picked a sunset spot that only had a handful of tourists sitting on the ledges. Because the trip back is in near darkness, tourists take the horse-drawn carts to and from the sunset spots.

Horse carts and sunset temples in Bagan, Myanmar
The horse-carts give a bit of perspective on the size of these temples. Though some of the ruins are small stupas, others are massive temples that date back to the kings and rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Sunset temples in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
The hundreds of temples shift and change in the setting sun and allow for a different and beautiful sunset spot each night.

sunset bagan temples
We perched on the ledge of the temple and watched the sun sink across the sky.

The last fragments of daylight left the sky and silhouetted the iconic temples.

Bagan was such a special stop on our travels through Myanmar and an real highlight of our time traveling the region. The temples are incredible, and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!