A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Russia: Upending Cultural Assumptions

Cold air gnawed through my layers, persistent and unrelenting. As an avowed lover of all things tropical—smoothie flavors, color pallets, and, yes, temperatures—I had dreaded exploring St. Petersburg, Russia in November, a month marked by gray skies, drizzling rain, and pervasive chill. Although my unsuitability for cold weather panned out, St. Petersburg upended my every other assumption about what I would find when I touched down in “The Venice of the North”—a name both apt and yet too simplistic to encapsulate the the city’s je ne sais quoi.

View of St. Petersburg from Saint Isaac's Cathedral.
Sweeping views of the city from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral—the Winter Palace (ie. the Hermitage) is the massive blue building.

Visiting Russia: My Why

Hype and media frenzy formed my preconceptions about Russia. Although I have never yet found a country’s politics an accurate representation of its people, I struggled to shake the politicized rhetoric about Russia as I packed for my trip—an endeavor that involved shoving every sweater I owned into my bag. I approached my business trip with cautious curiosity, knowing the dangers of visiting with a “single story“—a uniform stereotype applied broadly to a people and place based on limited information.

Funny enough, hype in media was the very nature of my talk at the VII St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum. The TASS News Agency invited me to speak at the Forum on seven-person panel entitled: “Hype Together: The Era of Cultural Shock.” But how could I discuss fake news, bias, and media ethics in Russia? I grappled with the question even as my plane touched down in St. Petersburg.

O'Donnell on a panel talk in Russia
Panel speech on hype in Media hosted and organized by TASS. (Image courtesy of TASS News Agency)

My first day passed in a haze. I formed only fleeting impressions of the city, too consumed with the swirling details of my panel talk. And even though my first discussion took place in the storied the General Staff Building of the Hermitage Museum, I spared it but a glance. Instead I shook many hands and then discussed ethics in not just media, but blogging/influencer relationships specifically.

And I found the conference both fascinating and exceedingly normal.

No whiff of politics entered my talks; instead we explored ideas about communicating culture despite modern obstacles (think 10-second attention spans and pay-for-play social media). We discussed the value of raising our collective expectations of what content creators offer the world—this is a big one for me: Why are we content with a culture of superficial, wistful Instagram shots replacing thoughtful discussion in the travel industry? Why are we allowing bloggers to sneak past our media filters with barely disclosed sponsored relationships? I think a lot about what it will take for us to shift this rising trend.

In short, my section of the forum examined the role of mass media in the promotion of culture and art—how are the media and bloggers fairing and where can they do better?

My efforts in the tourism industry these past years have gradually shifted from one of simply broadcasting travel adventures, to instead purposefully sharing ideas and travel stories that raise level of conversation about a place.

We as travelers, me included, can always find ways to more responsibly interact with a new place—find the cultural adventures without leaving behind a negative legacy. This type of dialogue, however, is not always sexy and shareable—it doesn’t bring in the big bucks from advertisers and these types of pieces rarely go viral. Given that, is it any wonder many of the discussions eventually spoke of the delicate balance content creators need to remain relevant in a culture valuing cat videos and pop culture memes? It’s a balance I haven’t yet found on this site, to be honest, but nevertheless, I persist. Because despite the challenges, navigating these issues is what readers deserve—content that entertains but doesn’t assume a baseline unwillingness to tackle weightier subjects.

Shannon O'Donnell speaking about Women in Cinema at the Cultural Forum
Speaking on a panel about Women in Cinema. (Image courtesy of TASS News Agency)

Exploring St. Petersburg: The Parts I Loved

Once the hustle had passed, I approached the city as I do any new destination: discover iconic “must-see” landmarks, immerse in offbeat experiences, and ask questions of any local open to answering them. Our posse of speakers explored together the first few days, but as they slowly flew home, I sunk into purposeful anonymity amongst the crowds.

As an advocate for slow travel, I knew three days was not enough to do all the things, so I  extended my dates beyond the conference. Those few extra days proved long enough for me to piece together an unexpected story of a culture well-versed in hospitality, even if it appears unlike the gushing verisimilitude of American hospitality.

When they found out it was my first time in their country, locals immediately asked me how reality differed from my expectations. I could only confess that it was all entirely more lovely, in every way, than I had anticipated.

My fingers were numb from the cold, but I was determined to frame the perfect shot. :)

Views of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral on a chilly winter day.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Russia
Views from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral over the river and the pretty buildings of St. Petersburg.

Street scenes near the iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

The city of St. Petersburg is stunning. Steeped in history and bustling with arts and culture, a broad cross-section people from all over the country fill the streets. Like metropolises all over the world, St. Petersburg offers a dynamic blend of traditional and new—hipster vegan street food served under the shadow of the iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Grandmothers in bundled layers fill the streets in equal measure alongside smartly-clad businessmen. My casual search for vegetarian borscht crossed three winding canals, each bridge endowed with intricate lattice ironwork and sweeping views of pastel-painted buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries.

As a rule, I eschew big cities—their frenetic pace and towering buildings overwhelm me. I favor a slow pace of life and cities that match my speed. My six month sojourn in a 1,000-person beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast was, in a word, idyllic.

However, somewhere between tipping back a celebratory shot of vodka with fellow speakers and breathing deep of breathtaking views from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg charmed me, wholly and completely. And I never saw it coming.

Me in an alley in St. Petersburg Russia
It looks like a sketchy alley, but it offered—bar none—the most interesting vegan street food I’ve had anywhere in the world.

Upending Assumptions: My Travel Lessons

Travel is a near constant assault on the senses. Every encounter rewrites the codes and social mores by which you live. Things you inherently understand—how to order food, sip tea, or greet people—instead present moments of apologetic fumbling met by gracious smiles of instantaneous forgiveness. These unexpected misadventures form the bedrock of my best memories.

Yet countries and experiences have blurred over the past decade as the reality of living on the road eclipsed the novelty of new places and cultures. Along the way, I lost a piece of the travel experience—the piece that had lured me into a life of perpetual travel in the first place. When I settled in Barcelona earlier this year, I hoped the mundane joys of routine would reignite contrasting surprise when I ventured to new places.

Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg Russia
Views of downtown from St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.

By all accounts, it worked. Traveling to Russia fundamentally upended my cultural assumptions about the country and the people. While I had hoped to visit the country “one day,” I had allowed an onslaught of negative media to overshadow a truth I have found in every corner of the world: People in every pocket of our planet share more fundamental similarities than differences. Russians, like Americans, work to build a better life for their children, converse with friends over steaming cups of tea, and possess nuanced perspectives misrepresented by fleeting news clips.

My favorite college professor once said the mantra of public relations is this: Perception is reality, facts notwithstanding. Our reality forms from a maelstrom of information influenced by media, socioeconomic status, friend groups, and so many other contributing factors. Perhaps what captivated me most about St. Petersburg, Russia was how much it defied my perception—one I had built without firsthand experiences.

People are not their government’s politics. This is an assumptive kindness many afford me as an American, and this trip reminded me to afford others that same grace.

Because I am charmed by Russia.

Although I will return to explore other areas of the country, part of me hopes to never return to St. Petersburg, thus forever preserving these crystalline memories. The people, place, and experience coalesced into a welling sense of wonder that struck without warning. This never happens in the places I expect to love. Instead, I ended a casual taxi ride in Yangon, Myanmar feeling an existential connection to the hum of universe. After two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia merely awaiting my flight home, the city’s charm and hospitality left me an unabashed fangirl. And a whirlwind business trip to St. Petersburg reignited the inexplicable lure of finding myself completely adrift in the unknown.

plaza real bareclona

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Barcelona: Finding Home

Finding a way to stop traveling has been an evolving process. When I booked that one-way flight ten years ago, a year of travel loomed before me, an epic round-the-world trip that would fulfill my dreams to see more of the world while also preparing me to contentedly return to Los Angeles at the end. I had no idea that ten years later I would move to Barcelona instead. I also didn’t know that this decade would both fill my memories with achingly lovely moments and allow me to find my passion for writing and photography while also bringing a raft of unexpected health and emotional challenges, too.

When I set out on this journey, I had big expectations. I didn’t love all aspects of myself and my life when I left—I hoped that traveling would shore up those lingering doubts, fears, and insecurities. And I hoped for adventure, grand adventures beyond the borders of the U.S. and into cultures I had never yet seen, through the landscapes I had only glimpsed in magazines as a child.

Six years later, depression creeped into my life, infiltrating the edges of even the most banal thoughts. I didn’t talk about it much because, well frankly it wasn’t a great year for me. At first I just drifted away from blogging. I needed a few months off from travel writing to right my world.

I just needed space.

A tiny hiatus and I’d be right as rain.

Plaça Reial in Barcelona

Searching for Home

Even then, however, I suspected that it wasn’t blogging alone that needed to change. I needed a home base. I moved to a beach town in Mexico for five months, and it helped. I took nightly sunset walks on the beach, my desire to write came back in fits and spurts, and having an apartment settled me. But it didn’t stick. By picking a country with a lenient visa policy—six months free on arrival for Americans—it allowed me treat the endeavor like a grand lark. When the good friends that I had made moved on, I did too. I traveled again but distanced myself from my travel writing. Instead, I returned to my hometown in Florida to connect with old friends and to find new ways to treat depression’s quiet darkness that would never quite lift its invisible tentacles; its darkness had reached into every part of my waking life.

I eventually moved to Oaxaca, Mexico with a bestie who was also a long-term traveler in search of a place in the world to call home. It seemed promising. I fiercely wanted to hang my hat there and officially end my peripatetic decade.

When my six month visa expired, I bid it adieu forever. During that spring in Oaxaca I experienced the most serious allergies I’ve ever had—hay-fever so terrible I would flee street-side dinners with friends so I could shower and hide under my covers, the only place I found relief from the urge to rub every last piece of skin from my face. By the end of my time there, my activated immune system developed a permanent allergy to my contact lenses, which I had worn for 20 years without issue (I’m still a little bitter about that).

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hanging at Hierve El Agua

flame tree in bloom

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

I left Mexico tired. Every year on the road seemed to worsen my allergies, which I have linked to nearly dying of dysentery my first year on the road. I needed to stop traveling but I was at a loss for which place in the world was worthy of calling home. It had to be perfect if I was going to finally pick a single city to see every day of my life.

So yeah, of course I fell back on old patterns and I traveled while I figured out the answer. Travel has been my default state since I left in 2008 and it I have struggled to stop moving, to pull the trigger on a decision like buying furniture again and a car. Partly because the weight I felt the decision held, but also because it was cheaper for me to travel the world than return to LA. I am terrified of being in debt again, of that desperation I felt just a couple of years out of college as I sunk under the weight of low-paying work and ever-accruing credit card interest. The debt was complicated; it wasn’t all from “keeping up with the Joneses,” it was a series of unfortunate events that created a teetering tower of debt that threatened to crush me if I didn’t constantly run on my spinning wheel. Traveling arrested that process. Three-and-a-half years into my travels and I had cleared that ominous debt tower. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was free from debt and the thought of returning to a lifestyle that would put me back in that circumstance wasn’t on the table.

Another year on the road slipped past me almost unnoticed; I was a leaf caught in a rushing river and riding the easiest current. I housesat in southern Spain, spent a few months with friends in Australia, and then for the hell of it, I backpacked Vietnam for three months. It wasn’t my best moment of follow through, but that additional year of travel got me closer, somehow, to where I am now. Closer to Barcelona.

When I left Vietnam, I returned to the states to fulfill one of my last big travel promises: to take my remaining niece on an adventure. Over this past decade, I somehow managed to backpack Southeast Asia for seven months with my angsty pre-teen niece Ana, then I followed that up with a road-trip across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with my two naughty nephews (cute, but naughty). Children are so impressionable in the middle school years, and I deeply wanted to show each what I loved about this huge world of ours at least once before they entered adulthood. Last summer, my niece Jinnai joined me on a five-week, 500 mile (800 kilometer) pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago Frances.

Our long, long walk is a story for another day, but suffice to say that at the end we wanted nothing more than sun, sand, and good food. We headed to Barcelona. One day during our week of exploring, we wandered through charming working-class neighborhood called Barceloneta. Dockworkers lived here in times past and now it has a “village within a city” feel. Laundry dripped from rows of wrought-iron stretching into the sky and the neighborhood’s narrow streets all led to the water. I looked around and realized this was it; in a stutter of a heartbeat I decided to move to Spain.

Viewpoint in the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago 12.5 km sign

End of the Camino de Santiago

Plaça Reial

Barcelona Parc de la Ciutadella

Finding a Home

I am penning this dispatch from my apartment in Barceloneta—a small six-floor walkup with heaps of sunshine and views of the ocean if I lean over my balcony. And I feel at peace. Friends and travelers have asked why I chose Barcelona, and my answer is usually something like: “I realized it was good enough.”

There are people who fall in love with Barcelona in an instant. That wasn’t me. When I visited in 2012, I thought it a gorgeous city but with little to compel me beyond that. I didn’t dislike the city—I’m not really sure how anyone could dislike it!—but I didn’t fall for it in the way that people assume.

Instead, on my second visit I realized that this small neighborhood near the beach, in a city where I speak the language and enjoy the culture, was enough. It’s not perfect—local Spaniards laugh at me when I tell them I moved to Barceloneta, which will heave with tourists come summer—but all of these years I have searched for the impossible: an idyllic place that combined the best aspects of every city I had ever loved.

Barcelona instead meets most of my checklist wishes; it’s a vibrant city with a young population and it sees more sunny beach days than not—as a born-and-raised Floridian, I am fanatically committed to both warmth and water. The one thing that had long kept Barcelona off my list was that I know almost no one in the city. I am not just tired of traveling, I am weary of being far from connections, from the people I know and love in this world.

It had always seemed like moving back home to Florida was the most obvious choice since most of my dearest friends live there, and my family, too. Even as I applied for my long-term Spanish visa last fall—an arduous process—I looked at real estate near my hometown and thought hard about where I should settle, because it was going to happen in 2018 no matter what. For so many reasons, however, Florida is an unhealthy place for me. One day it might be right—after all, I never saw the curveball coming that I would live on the road for nearly a decade, make a living writing about responsible travel, and have friends dotting the globe. When I received a letter in the mail just after Thanksgiving granting me the right to live in Spain for a year, I knew it was the right move. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified, because panic flashed in my chest that I was making the wrong choice and needed to abort ship asap.

I didn’t abort ship.

Barceloneta architecture

Pretty buildings in Barceloneta

Barcelona Cathedral

views of barceloneta

window view from my house in Barcelona

Here in my small apartment I have created balance that I haven’t had since I left Los Angeles in 2008. I furiously write every morning and my mind dizzies with the number of creative projects I am inspired to work on—without constant strain of planning travels and nonstop movement, my mind has space for new ideas. I am writing a book proposal, and the idea SO spot on for what I want to put into the world that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long figure it out. And now I have the time to make that project, and this blog, all a bigger priority in my life. I can work, but also have a balance with other aspects of non-travel life. There are joys in this, too.

On the weekends, I walk to the market nearby and already the vendor knows to weigh out a half-kilo of cherry tomatoes while I sort through the selection of peppers. An old man who lives in my building waves when we pass on the street and the owner of my local bodega gives me a mini chupa chups lollipop for free when I stop in for a chat and a bottle of agua con gas.

And friends come visit! That’s a new one for me since usually I’m the one passing through for a quick hello. Victoria and Steve brought the tiniest addition to their family and we had grand fun playing in the park, strolling the beach, and partaking in many cups of gelato.

friends from BridgesandBalloons.com

Barcelona

Gelato on a sunny day

Sunday brunch in style!

It’s fun. Better yet, it feels right.

My friend Louise lives in London and we last traveled together to Cuba many years ago—since then we have rarely managed to cross paths. Now that I am living in Europe, she invited me on an impromptu girl’s weekend to Lisbon next week. And in June I’ll jet over to Morocco with a Florida-friend—I have these great little trips planned for every month from now until October! Instead of feeling a heavy weight on my chest from the burden of planning new travels, there’s no pressure—I’ll stuff a few clothes into daypack and leave the rest folded neatly in my drawers for when I come back.

Because I live here now.

I live in Barcelona.

Maybe not forever, but I live here now and that’s enough.

A Little Delight… Stories of Responsible Travel in Hoi An, Vietnam

responsible travel guide Hoi An, VietnamDrizzling rain pattered on my umbrella as I wove through throngs of tourists, their rainbow-hued ponchos forming sudden pops of contrast against the canary-colored walls. I dodged locals pedaling rickety bicycles on the rain-drenched streets, and darted into the calm oasis of a local teahouse-cum-social enterprise in Hoi An, Vietnam. The rain hadn’t let up for a week and the teahouse was my daily respite from the chaos—a respite from the tedium of days spent peering from windows at waterlogged rice paddies and dark, pregnant skies.

I had landed in southern Vietnam weeks earlier with a vague plan to meander north for three months. Now into my tenth year on the road, my travel style has changed significantly. I no longer make meticulous travel plans and so I entered Vietnam with two vague goals: see beautiful things and find beautiful stories capable of inspiring others to use travel as a force for good.

Hoi An Ancient Town was a natural stop in my quest for beauty—a more charming town may not exist anywhere in the world. I have a deep love for towns many consider inauthentic. I passed through Antigua, Guatemala in the second year of my round the world trip and stayed for weeks. I loved Luang Prabang, Laos enough that I returned with my niece so she could soak in the laid-back Laotian culture and beautiful French colonial architecture. And Hoi An’s narrow streets and 18th century wooden houses enchanted me. Each of these towns share status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and that is surely part of the charm—they are towns steeped in history and seemingly frozen in time.

aerial view of sustainable hoi an

responsible travel guide Hoi An, Vietnam

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

sustainable traveling Hoi An, Vietnam

Quan Cong Temple ancient town temples

Hoi An at night with lanterns

Time moves forward, however, and touristy towns offer unique opportunities for responsible travelers that are impossible to find in more off-the-beaten-path locations. Tourism dollars facilitate innovations. Peeling back the layer of novelty from a travel experience uncovers fascinating ways for economic exchanges that support local economies and communities. And that’s my passion, finding ways to help travelers connect to causes and communities.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I puttered around the Mekong Delta for nearly a month. Few travelers venture into Vietnam’s Mekong for more than a day-trip, so I was a lone tourist biking through rice paddies and sipping coconuts bought from street-side vendors. In this situation, I knew my tourism dollars directly benefited the local economy because I placed each dong (Vietnam’s currency) into the hands of a local. Beyond this cash exchange for guesthouses and food, however, the lack of a tourism industry meant that I had no way to offer tourism dollars in support of local social issues lacking funding.

Supporting local businesses is enough in these situations, it’s a concrete and sustainable way to approach responsible tourism. But sustainable travel in more touristic places offers alternatives—fascinating alternatives, too! I loved my time in Hoi An not just because it’s a beautiful town, but also because locals are using tourism as a force for positive change in their community. Armed with information and curiosity, I delighted in discovering the many ways Hoi An’s doing sustainable, responsible tourism right.

responsible travel vietnam

Reaching Out: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities

reaching out teahouse vietnam
Fellow travelers Carmela and Raymund (on the right) passed through town on my last day, so we sipped coffee and swapped travel stories away from the bustle.

Reaching Out was the first of several Hoi An social enterprises I visited during my time in Hoi An, and it’s the one I frequented the most. The organization runs two businesses, an arts and crafts boutique and a traditional Vietnamese teahouse—both businesses employ people with disabilities.

Although I am not one for buying many souvenirs, I found a beautifully crafted silver ring in the shop and bought it as a Christmas/birthday present to myself. Employees craft the gifts by hand in the workroom at the back of the shop, so you can watch artisans weave placemats and blacksmith jewelry.

The teahouse, however, stands apart and houses my best memories. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is most famous for gorgeous teak houses filled with carved pillars and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Just a block from the town’s iconic Japanese Bridge, the teahouse occupies a preserved building dating from the late 1800s. Hordes of passing foot traffic belies the serene interior. The teahouse staff are all deaf and hearing-impaired and the teahouse runs through written notes, small wooden blocks with messages for the servers, and when all else fails, the women are adept are sussing out any charades you throw their way.

Both businesses provide opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives. It’s not only a beautiful mission to support, but the entire experience is well crafted. Even though I had been in Vietnam for many weeks before arriving in Hoi An, I hadn’t yet sat down for a traditional Vietnamese tea service. The teahouse remedied that and provided me with a memorable experience.

In areas with a strong language barrier, participating in tourist experiences lifts the shade on the cultural window—it gives tourists a culturally appropriate way to interact and learn. Rather than seeming inauthentic, the teahouse experience gave me, a traveler, a clear understanding of how to access aspects of the culture that seemed distant or hard to penetrate. By finding these types of responsible tourism experiences, I can fumble my way through the etiquette, satiate my curiosity with questions, and ultimately support a worthy cause, too. For those, and for so many other reasons, Reaching Out added nuance and beauty to my weeks in Hoi An.

reaching out teahouse review

reaching out arts and crafts 

traditional vietnamese tea sampler

teahouse cookies  

shannon o'donnell a little bit adrift

try traditional vietnamese coffee

STREETS International: Training Disadvantaged Youth in the Hospitality Sector

My lunch at STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An was unequivocally my best meal in the city (and probably among my favorite dishes in Vietnam). Vietnam isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians and many local specialities are impossible to replicate without meat. Although I had read about cao lầu (a signature Hoi An dish served with pork), STREETS was on my radar wholly because of its social mission, not the food. So I was delighted to see vegetarian cao lầu on the menu during my first visit, and doubly delighted that it tasted as good as it looked!

STREETS International runs the cafe as a social enterprise supporting its hospitality and culinary training program for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia. Restaurant revenue sustains the training program while also providing practicum for the students—they run nearly every aspect of it, from cooking to serving.

STREETS became my regular haunt and I spent many afternoons people-watching from the wide, sunny windows and asking my servers candid questions about their long-term goals. They shared with me their hopes that this training would change the course of their life. By learning hard skills they could now contribute to their communities. Living in such a touristy town, hospitality training was their ticket to a better life and a future with real opportunities. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, hoping to change the course of your life deeply resonates with me. Supporting this cafe offered a glimpse behind Hoi An’s beautiful veneer—no town or community is exempted from its share of hardship, and the servers at STREETS offer an uplifting story of how the aggregate of tourist dollars from responsible travelers creates sustainable change for local communities.

streets international social enterprise hoi an

The Wider Hoi An Region: Spreading Money into Local Communities

Hoi An suffers a fate facing many cities around the world: over tourism. The reasons I loved Ancient Town—the historic, well-preserved streets infused with centuries of history—were the same reasons I braved the rain and biked through the outskirts of Hoi An. Over tourism also affects my new home base in Barcelona—the city’s popularity has eclipsed sustainability. There is no single solution to over tourism and governments across the world are finding new ways to preserve historic cities. Tourists staying home is one easy solution. But then, that’s not ideal either! Mostly because they won’t stay home; tourists visit places regardless of their impact on sustainability. So one solution is to divert some of each traveler’s time into surrounding areas—to spread out the impact of those warm bodies treading through ancient wooden houses.

The perfect weather never materialized, so I donned a poncho and spent many days pedaling my rented bike on circuitous routes that delved deep into lesser touristed communities in the region. And it was lovely in every way. Misty rain coated the rice paddies. Heavy skies sat low on the horizon. School children vogued for my camera. Each day that I ventured out, I found delightful cafes and restaurants and fascinating slices of daily life in Vietnam.

biking around hoi an through the rice paddies

farmer in rural Vietnam

palms reflection on a rice paddy

school student Vietnam travel

bike riding around outskirts of Hoi An.

fisherman on a bay during my biking route

Smiles from an local Vietnamese man in a boat

geometric floor tiles in the temple

dragon reflections in the small pond

geometric floor tiles in the temple in Hoi An 

mahogany and mother-of-pearl inlay furniture

floor tiles 

Weeks of unabating rain eventually maxed out the capacity of the local reservoirs, which overflowed the river and flooded Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The ancient houses contain pulley systems to raise historic furniture to the second floor and locals scurried to protect it all. And just as suddenly as the floodwaters appeared, the sun returned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated rivers of brackish water now flowing through the streets. These were among my last days in Hoi An, and the sunshine highlighted many of the serious sustainability challenges facing this pretty little city with history dating to the 15th century. Visiting social enterprises and spreading my money around the region doesn’t solve all of these deeper issues, but my time in Hoi An provided me with just enough insight to realize it was a credible start.

Flooding in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Dad on motorbike sustainable issues hoi an 

responsible travel Hoi An, Vietnam.

biking around hoi an

local street vendor in Hoi An

Historic Flooding in Hoi An 


Hoi An charmed me. It charmed me with its beauty, but also with its innovations—the local community facing down challenging social issues and bringing forward solutions.

Both businesses profiled here are beautiful ways for responsible travelers in Hoi An to leave behind money in a meaningful way. Over the years, I have shifted much of my time away from direct volunteering. When I left on my travels a decade ago, volunteering made sense—I had volunteered extensively in the U.S. and continued that form of contribution on the road. But the international volunteering industry is fraught with issues. In time, I found alternative ways to channel my goals to give back and serve communities.

Throughout my three months in Vietnam, I found countless Vietnamese social enterprises with similar stories of hope, similar goals to create change within their community. By the time I arrived in Vietnam, I was already tired from years on the road. My best friend had deeply loved her time in Vietnam so it was one place I was committed to exploring before finally creating a home base. Three months and more than a thousand miles later, the people, landscapes, and stories of Vietnam left me enchanted.

Quick Travel Tips: Hoi An Social Enterprises

Reaching Out Teahouse: 131 Trần Phú Street. Mon – Fri from 8:30 to 21:00, and Sat – Sun from 10:00 to 20:30.
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Same hours as the teahouse.
STREETS Restaurant: 17 Le Loi Street. Everyday from noon to 10:00pm.
9Grains by STREETS: 441A Hai Ba Trung. Daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
Jack’s Cat Cafe: Cuddle rescued strays at 12 Le Hong Phong. 11am – 3pm, everyday except Mon & Thur.

View my Vietnam Travel Guide for advice on every place I stayed and ate, as well as an interactive map of all the social enterprises in Vietnam.

How travel transforms

A Little Reckoning… On Transformative Travel Experiences and 9 Years of Travel

nine years world traveler
Nearly a decade of travel. The top left is my final day as a Los Angeleno, and the other three are from France, Kyrgyzstan, and Vietnam—all places I have visited this year.

To call it sadness gives it too much weight. But happiness is too vibrant and concrete. I don’t feel identifiably happy as I enter my tenth year on the road. At least not toward travel, particularly. It’s more like a heavy uncertainty. My life is pregnant with pause. I am waiting to hear from the Spanish embassy, and if it approves my visa application, I am moving to Spain, for now. If it doesn’t, I will move somewhere Stateside. Either way, it’s time to get an apartment. I will still travel, but at a different pace. I’ll have a home base from which to explore. A place to hang paintings, and a place to welcome friends. It feels right to change the direction of this path I ventured down in 2008. I accomplished so much more than the goals I had dreamed of when I began traveling.

Looking back at the 20-something version of myself, packing for her round the world trip, kissing friends and family goodbye, and crying on the way to the airport—I was poised on the edge of something great. Facing the uncertainty of my year on the road filled me with exhilarating fear. No matter the cost, I wanted the experience of travel. Absolutely. So I left; I adventured.

And years passed. Nine, to be exact.

After nine years of travel, I have deeply and fundamentally changed.

Which was my intention. Change would have happened either way, even if I hadn’t traveled, because nine years is a long time. But when I first nurtured the seed of an idea to backpack around the world, I flirted with the transformation narrative our culture wraps around travel.

We are told personal transformation—personal excellence even—is the result of a well-traveled life.

It’s a powerful narrative, an aspiration sold by the media, by the travel literati. The transformation narrative is desirable and sexy. Epic adventuring catalyzes deep internal shifts. Only travel itself unlocks the changes; without the travel experience, you cannot access all that is promised. What you will become is unknowable, the entire promise is possibly unattainable. Uncertainty only increases the appeal.

The lure of the transformation pulled at the lightest and darkest parts of my soul. Transformation promised me the opportunity to become the best version of myself, and it promised to lift me from my shameful background. I wanted in on all of that, no matter what it would take to make it happen.

My nieces and nephews have joined me along the way. I’ve taken them on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, adventuring in Thailand, and road-tripping in Mexico. My dad, niece and I traveled through Panama together, too!

… on my early days.

Growing up, I hid much about my life from friends. Around my middle school years I realized my family had issues. Fundamental dysfunction cracked our familial walls and splintered the bright, assumptive “American Dream” that I had supposed we were living during my early childhood. By my teenage years, it was clear that while there is such thing as being poor with dignity, we weren’t that kind of family.

At a time when I desperately sought to belong within my peer group, I developed deep shame about my background. I machinated a story of myself that better aligned with the outward version of “normal” I saw in everyone else. I was good at dissembling; I learned to tell an edited version of my life for “polite society.” Others would like me better, better accept me, if they thought my childhood was middle class, too.

And it worked, for the most part. I graduated high school with honors and had a bevy of middle-class friends. I was the first in my family to attend university. And yet, life followed me. When I participated in that classic middle-class rite of passage—a summer study abroad program—I flew home three days into it to bury my brother, the first of several family members who have been taken by the ongoing opioid crisis. His death leveled me. It flattened the colors of my world. I could not edit this family tragedy from my story.

It was my first truly transformative experience. I hadn’t chosen it, but it fundamentally changed me.

Three years later, I would leave on a one-way ticket to travel around the world. I would choose transformation through travel for all the light and happy things I wanted to become, for the lessons I would learn and the knowledge I could forever hold within me. And sure, I was escaping some things, too. That statement feels true. But it’s also true that I was running into the next step of healing, of growth. I was escaping my past into a more accepting larger world.

We all seek things: acceptance, love, truth. Travel looked like an escape hatch, but not one that would come easy or free. And that, too, appealed to me. Life had shown me at every turn that nothing comes free.

jumping shots around the world
So many fun times while jumping at Petra in Jordan, jumping at a vibrant street-art exhibit in London, jumping at India’s Monument of Love, and even jumping on the Great Wall of China.

… on creating space for transformation.

When I left nine years ago, I gave little conscious thought to what actions catalyze transformation. I had assumed that transformation was a byproduct of setting in motion my plan to travel the world. That didn’t bear out as true. To an extent, I had known that I would return from my trip with few epiphanies if I spent a year sunning myself on a beach in Tahiti—I would be tanner and more relaxed, but little wiser, and unlikely transformed. There isn’t a manual on a way to travel that guarantees transformation—had there been one, I would have read it.

It took years on the road to realize that deep, lasting, and meaningful personal transformation happened as a result of the connections that I created with new people and cultures.

Like many travelers, I’ve ticked off the classic bucket list items. I dove the Great Barrier Reef, stood in awe of Petra, and I walked the Camino de Santiago across France and Spain. These adventures satisfied my wanderlust and satiated my craving to see new things and to stimulate my curiosity, but it wasn’t the adventures that changed me.

As I look back on nine years of travel, I see that this life on the road has afforded me the chance to connect with people from every walk of life. Travel was the shiny wrapping paper around the experiences. Experiences like conversing with indigenous women in rural Mexico, and sunset hiking with Maasai warriors, and even casual conversations over yum kai dao with other expats in Chiang Mai. Years of conversations. Of viewpoints I had never encountered. Of stories I could have never imagined.

Hundreds of moments of connection over thousands of days of travel.

It’s the one through-line in my travels. Connection is the thread binding to me each experience and memory. Sometimes, memories of beautiful vistas, waterfalls, and mountains blend together, but each story, laugh, and friendship stands as a distinct tick mark on the timeline of my nine years.

We have a fundamental need to connect. Perhaps that’s why no one had to teach me that this was my surest path toward personal transformation. We are wired to connect; pro-social behavior is programmed into our brains from birth. But despite these fundamental needs, technology has isolated us from connection. The more time I spend on social media or plugged into my online world, the easier I slip away from this fundamental truth: we require interpersonal connections.

Had you told me connection would make all the difference when I left to travel, I would have bought what you were selling. It makes sense. And it makes sense that travel is the ideal way to practice radical connection—travel friendships are intense and fast. It’s completely normal to meet a new friend and spend the next week eating three meals a day together. It’s a gauntlet of new situations and new opportunities to connect. Travel is a bootcamp for life, honing skills we need, skills that can lay dormant when we maintain a life of routine and familiarity.

Over time, however, I discovered that pairing acceptance with connection upped the stakes considerably. The thread that bound connections to me wove acceptance into my life, too. As I connected with new friends and throughout new experiences, I learned to radically accept those on my path. Stay on the road for long enough, and acceptance invariably comes. Acceptance of the people who surprise us and acceptance of the validity of ideas that challenge us. And acceptance of ourselves, too. Somehow, that winds its way through the entire process.

My focus shifted to responsible travel over the years, giving me the chance to talk with locals in communities all over the world.
A decade of travel friendships. Some were friends from high school and college who traveled to far-flung places to join my journey. And some I met along the way, and their friendships resonated strong and deep.

… on what I’ve learned along the way.

As my travels progressed beyond the first year, and when I realized I would never return to the life I had left in LA, my professional and personal focus changed. Instead of sharing my journey on this site—I founded A Little Adrift to fill the gap in online information about long-term travel—I crystalized my focus on sharing stories that shifted the way others see the world. If connection was the root of my personal transformation through travel (and it was), then I wanted to create connections for those who may never travel. I wanted to share stories of the human experience that would eliminate distance and indifference across countries, continents, and cultures.

Over the years, my goals continued to shift and my career changed paths. Although I continued to work in online marketing for years, I also began promoting responsible tourism through this site, and through its sister site. And while I shared these stories for others, I was also in my groove. I loved traveling and talking to others. I loved finding these tiny social enterprises and interviewing the founders to learn how others were changing their small corner of the world.

The core of responsible travel comes down to experiencing and supporting people as they are. For years, I have entered cultures and communities all over the world to experience and accept them, never looking for the ways I could change them. Instead, I looked for the what I could learn from them. I advocated for travelers to take a journey of curiosity and learning, not a mission of change.

I spent years honing my muscles of acceptance—training myself to distance my personal desires and beliefs from the people, traditions, and cultures I entered. After hundreds (probably thousands) of conversations of connection and acceptance, after nearly a decade of talking to others (from high school and college students to other travelers to friends and family), I realized that I had healed many of the hurts from my formative years.

Deep in my soul, I have always harbored the what-ifs about my family and my life. Everything would have been different if only we hadn’t been poor, if we hadn’t sometimes lived in squalor. It would have turned out happy and healthy if my brothers had chosen education over drugs and crime.

I had deep shame about my background and I was unable to accept that I could not change or control the situation. Even as a teen, I tried to lift us from that, to forever shift our circumstances so that—as a whole—we were not identified with that income bracket, with being lower class, with being poor white trash. It’s not that I hated our poverty; I hated that we could not see our way through it.

And man would I love to say that I reached adulthood and figured it out, that I accepted each person in my family for who they are. I didn’t. And when dominoes of bad befell my four brothers, I doubled down. I was desperate to save us. I channeled my anger and hurt into going even further, into insisting that we become a different family. I demanded that we break the cycle with the next generation, my nieces and nephews. Even as I traveled, this unhealthy shame and need for change bound me to my hometown in Florida.

With each passing year, however, acceptance seeped through the cracks. It slithered around these long-held hurts and shame. It healed parts of me that I had never known needed a balm.

Travel has brought me profound joys. It brought me new friends, forever friends who have changed my life for the better. It brought laughter, struggle, and interest to my days. But it’s the process of connection and acceptance that transformed me into the person I am today.

Traveling doesn’t transform you. At least not the act of travel. Instead, traveling becomes shorthand for the journey you consciously choose when you set foot out your door. Is your journey one of returning from a beach in Tahiti, nine years later and significantly more tan? Or is it a purposeful act that sets in motion your personal transformation.

Like most things in life, neither choice is inherently right or wrong, but the outcomes vary greatly.

I traveled with a goal of personal transformation, and I succeeded on that front. After nine years of travel, I am deeply and fundamentally changed.

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.
stories of microfinance

A Little Portrait… Stories of Microfinance from the Women of the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

It’s the scent of warm corn that most reminds me of my time in Oaxaca, Mexico. Corn is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Mexico’s culture and daily life. And in the rural areas of Mexico, this link is even stronger. First cultivated 10,000 years ago, indigenous cultures keep a link to their past as by cultivating heirloom varieties and maintaining a diet filled with corn in every form. Although I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Mexico in the past, it’s only while volunteering in the Oaxaca Valley that I discovered just what that corn tastes like when it’s ground each day fresh, then pressed into many different tasty foods. The tortillas were most common, but I also ate it shaved from the cob, and even thick and warm in a chocolate drink called champurrado. But this is not a story of corn, although it framed so much of my time with the women I met. Instead, it’s a story of microfinance, and the impact one organization has on empowering women to build strong businesses and thriving communities.

Let’s start at the beginning. Oaxaca City is a popular tourist destination, and it is also the Mexican State with the highest concentration of the indigenous cultures. Rural poverty here is higher than some other Mexican states, and tourism is mostly concentrated on the coast and in Oaxaca City itself. In recent years, many towns began implementing ecotourism programs as a way to pull tourism deeper into the Valley—this spreads tourism income into rural cities, towns, and villages. In practice, that means even remote villages often have clean, furnished cabanas and tour guides ready to lead hikes through the dry, rolling Sierra Norte mountains. Beyond ecotourism, cultural tourism is also growing. Trends are changing. Responsible tourism is a viable, growing industry. And travelers now look for ways to both enjoy their vacation, but to also experience a region’s indigenous cultures and languages.

microfinance in oaxaca mexico

En Vía’s tourism model allows the organization to leverage resources from tourism and direct them sustainably into communities, while connecting people to the ideas, strength and power of women working hard to improve their future.

Through friends and readers, I found Fundación En Vía before I even arrived in Oaxaca. And as I came to understand the organization’s mission and goals, I decided to give my time to the social enterprise’s impactful work supporting women in the Oaxaca Valley with education and microfinance. Even more than just loving its work, I loved the model it uses to implement its microfinance and tour programs. Oaxaca’s year-round tourism enables the foundation to use cultural tours as a funding source for interest-free microloans for women in six communities east of Oaxaca City. Tours run several times a week into the communities, and these tours generate the funds for the loan pool, which serves more than 300 women. Without En Vía, other loan programs charge as much as 200 percent interest—an impossible sum in poverty-stricken areas. And yet, even just $80 to $200 of upfront cash provides the women with much-needed capital to expand their businesses, purchase items at a discount in bulk, or even to take a risk on a new business venture. In addition to the microloans, women attend businesses classes on a variety of topics, and they have the support of their co-lenders and the small En Vía team at every stage.

I loved the structure and the idea behind using tourism as a force for sustainable social change. So it came down to finding a way to support the foundation’s mission. Luck was on my side. When I arrived, two volunteer photographers were leaving. That left me the chance to fill in the gap. Once a woman borrows money, a photographer visits to photograph her with her recent purchases. These photographs serve three purposes: they provides lasting proof of how the women spent the loan money, they provide fodder for marketing and promotional materials, and the photographs allow the organization to stay present in these women’s lives.

I spent six months in Oaxaca, and during that time I ventured into the communities once or twice a week. These communities are primarily Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization dating back more than 2,500 years (many archeological sites remain scattered around the region). And although Zapotec is the first language for most of the woman I met, they all communicated with me in Spanish. My job was to photograph the women, but even more, I listened to their stories, slurped homemade ice cream with their children, and I laughed with them over my bungled Spanish. During the weeks and months, I came to deeply respect their ambition and perseverance. Several of these women acted as community ambassadors, welcoming me into their homes when I visited and plying me with piping hot tortillas fresh off of the comal.

The stories below are snapshots of these women’s lives. When you read about microfinance and fair trade purchases, your purchasing power affects the lives of women like those profiled below. I have deep respect for the work En Vía does to support the women in these communities. And even more, I love how the organization offers a responsible way for tourists to learn about Mexico’s fascinating indigenous cultures and customs.


En Via Microfinance social enterprise in Oaxaca, Mexico
Leticia García García had a wide, welcoming grin when my tour group knocked at her door in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec. She ushered us into a long room and toward her stove, which pumped heat through the brick and clay. The orange flames flickered as she shared her story, and wafts of warm corn scented the air. My first act as a photographer for En Vía entailed taking a tour—the same tour tourists would take to visit the women in the six communities where En Vía works. Although the women in Tomaltepec run a range of shops and businesses, Leticia takes part in the hallmark business in Tomaltepec: empanadas. Empanadas are a tasty tortilla wrapped around juicy sauce and meat. She does brisk business every Sunday, selling about 150 empanadas, with locals and those from surrounding villages traveling to Tomaltepec for the town’s signature dish. With her En Vía loan, Leticia purchased corn and wood in bulk, which lowered her production costs, thus upping her profit. She was all smiles as several members of our group munched on her empanadas while she answered our questions.


Carmela Hernandez Martinez Teotitlán microfinance near Oaxaca
Sometimes the women contained a shining, infectious joy. Carmela Hernandez Martinez is one of those woman. When I arrived around noon, she had already been up for eleven hours preparing the 300+ loaves of fresh bread that she sells every day. And can I say—her shop smells amazing. Although she had finished baking for the day, the sweet, yeasty scent of bread permeated her home. Last year, a team of engineering students from Mexico City built Carmela a large wood-fire oven that cooks as many as 280 small loaves of bread at once. Beside the huge stove was an enormous pile of wood and sacks of wheat, which she had bulk purchased with her previous loan. Although my official purpose with each woman is to photograph them with their loan purchases, many also show off improvements they have made to their businesses. In this case, Carmela and her husband showed me new aspects their kitchen—which was pristine clean, with no evidence of the morning mess that must have happened when they prepared hundreds of loaves of bread. When talking about the future, she and her husband hope to use their increased profit margin to begin selling bread in nearby towns, which will require fuel for their car and increased bread production. They had a plan though, so I have no doubt that I’ll be visiting their bread mobile next time I’m in San Miguel del Valle.


The En Via Microfinance program Eulalia with her organic garden.
I first met Eulalia Florina Ruiz Morales as she directed a team of En Vía volunteers who were constructing a garden on her property in the outskirts of Teotitlán del Valle, a town in the Oaxaca Valley most famous for the exquisite weaving skills of its inhabitants. The name Teotitlán comes from the Nahuatl word for “land of the gods,” and I believe that description when I wander the patch of earth she is developing—it has a stunning view of the nearby mountains. Eulalia is a long-time borrower with a remarkable story. As the youngest daughter in her family, she cared for her aging parents for much of her life. Now that they have passed, she uses her succession of En Vía loans to develop a home, garden, and weaving workshop. She has maintained many of the older natural wool colors that are rare in modern tapetes, wool rugs. Plus, she has unique designs in traditional Zapotec patterns that are also rare nowadays. She’s also quite a character plans to max out the potential for her life. She has used every program En Vía offers, from business classes to textile workshops to English language classes. Before I left Oaxaca, I visited Eulalia one last time. She showed me her composting worms—a volunteer-led project En Vía implemented to jumpstart a garden on her dry plot of land—and then we snacked on bananas and chatted about her plans to finish her home and continue growing her skills and business.


fairtrade seamstress in oaxaca
María de Lourdes García Ojeda, known as Lulu to her friends, has a big dream for her sewing shop in San Sebastián Abasolo. Abasolo is a tiny community outside of Oaxaca City, and the women in this small town use microfinance loans to level up their businesses in an area with few local opportunities. While many in the town commute to nearby Oaxaca City, Lulu has used her loans to provide niche sewing services to the women in Abasolo. Before her microfinance loans, she would sew and mend clothes for the women in town, only charging for her time. With her loans, however, she has invested in fabric, buttons, and even a mannequin so that she can create dresses, skirts, and shirts from scratch. By providing both the services and the goods, she has greatly increased her profits. While she once sewed in a small area in the back of her home, she moved into a sunny room that overlooks the street. She was all smiles as she showed me the colorful buttons, stacks of fabric, and piles of zippers that she had purchased with her previous En Vía loan. She now has a larger stock of items for sale, and women place orders with her months in advance in anticipation of local holidays and fiestas.


En Via Microfinance program in Oaxaca
As well-known as Teotitlán is for wool rugs, San Miguel del Valle stands out for incredible embroidery. Visitors to San Miguel will most remember the gorgeous traditional dresses on every woman, even the tiny little girls. Reina Erica López Hernández is one of the younger seamstresses in town, and she has her finger on the pulse of rising trends. San Miguel is a traditional Zapotec community living at 6,000 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Madres. It’s located a 30 minute bus tide from the main highway running through the Oaxaca Valley, so the community has maintained a strong sense of language and culture. It’s one of the lesser touristed villages served by En Vía’s microfinance program. For this reason, many of the women’s businesses serve their community, rather than tourists. This focus allows them to survive and thrive so far from the tourist trail. But without tourism, it also means that they have less available cash available—the En Vía tours are one of the few ways that tourists reach this town. Over the past two decades, Reina explained to me that the women in San Miguel have begun to embrace intricate apron patterns, their full skirts filled with elaborate designs. While the aprons were always a part of their traditional dress, the aprons now contain flaming peacocks and meticulously embroidered flowers. She has watched the aprons grow more complicated and beautiful and grew her skills to match. Using a five session class En Vía workshop on textile design, she developed new designs and ideas that she has become known for in her community. In the photo above, she explained how she took inspiration for that apron from nature’s color palette found in corn. She even uses sequins to add a bit of flair to some designs. With her previous loan, she bought a second sewing machine so that her husband could help grow their budding business. She is confident and driven when she speaks of her goals, and it was an inspiration to learn of her precise plans as she charts a course for her future.


In my early days volunteering for En Vía, I hadn’t yet figured out the timeline for my appointments. In Santa María Guelacé, a community about 40 minutes outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, I had a two-hour gap between appointments. With time to kill, I found a bench in the church courtyard and settled in with my Kindle to pass the time. As a man passed, he sauntered over and questioned me: What on earth was I doing in this small community? One thing led to another, and he invited me to attend a festival hosted by the town’s mayordomo. He dropped me off with six women who were preparing a massive amount of tejate, a tasty chocolate and corn drink beloved in the Zapotec and Mixtec communities. As luck would have it, one of the women preparing tejate was an En Via borrower, and she explained to the others about the program and why I was visiting their small town. After they fed me quesadilla and tejate, the host asked me to wander the festival and photograph the other women preparing for the festivities. It was a welcoming and happy way to pass the hours. When I was due at my next appointment, my host (who had lived in the States for six years and was happy to speak English for a bit), zipped me across town and with a tip of his cowboy hat, he wished me a happy day. This level of generosity and hospitality greeted me every town I visited while photographing the women.


mexican tortilla preparation
One of the things that drew me to En Vía’s microfinance program is the organization’s “whole-person” approach. Juana Pérez Martínez is a perfect example of the range of services the foundation provides to woman in the program. Juana lives in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec and sells fresh tortillas and tlayudas. She uses her microfinance loans to bulk purchase corn and wood so that she maximizes her profit potential. Her husband was injured 30 years ago, so profit is important—she has long supported more than four people with her skills on the comal. En Vía uses tour fees to fund the loan pool for these woman, but through other projects—voluntours and special holiday tours—the foundation raises funds for other projects these women need. For Juana and her family, a new toilet was of utmost need. The volunteer engineering students from Mexico City had a tricky feat designing a composting toilet that met the space requirements and the special needs of her husband, who has limited mobility. This past summer, the team figured out a solution and built a composting toilet that will greatly increase the quality of life for their family.


santo domingo tomaltepec microfinance
The first time I showed up in Juana Espinoza Martínez’s shop, I was confused, late, and a bit flustered. The shared taxi left me a mile from town and I had hoofed along a sunny road in the blazing heat. Eventually, I found my way to Juana, and she won me over. I counted on her ready smile and generous help. Juana runs a bread supply shop with her husband. Like many of the En Vía women, Juana’s loans have allowed her to expand her merchandise and increase her profit margin. With the microloans, she is able to bulk buy bread staples: butter and flour. Although there is competition in town, Juana explained that she and her husband focus on customer service as their differentiator. And I believe it. They had an adorable daughter nearby and still took care and time to share their story with me. Even more, Juana and her husband took initiative to help me navigate their town. By the time our chat wound down, Juana’s brother-in-law showed up with a big grin and a willingness to spend the next two hours navigating me around town.


microfinance tours in mexico
As one of En Via’s first borrowers, Enedina Bazán Chávez has spent several years using microfinance to grow her business. She and her mother weave together in Teotitlán, and they have expanded their business through many rounds of loans and repayments. Like many of the women I met, the focus is not just on lifting themselves from rural poverty, but to also use the loans to lift the entire family. Enedina’s loans allowed her to build a stock of items. With a large supply, she expanded her storefront and began stocking items from other family members, too. Beyond selling her own beautiful wool rugs, tourists can purchase her mother’s handmade chocolate and her cousin’s textiles, as well as a selection of her daughter’s jewelry. Enedina and her family are not only warm and welcoming, but they are huge supporters of the program. It’s from their compound that I often organized my photography appointments (there is a delicious coffee shop in the compound, which didn’t hurt). And when I couldn’t find my next appointment, someone in the family sorted it out and sent me on my way.


teotitlan del valle, oaxaca, mexico
Weaving is a family affair for Angela Lazo Martínez. Angela lives in a compound in Teotitlán with 10 family members, and all make artisan crafts. They have a prime spot on the town’s main road, and they are prolific creators! Tapetes in every color and pattern fill their shop, along with cotton bedspreads, tablecloths, blouses, and more. When she was nine years old, Angela learned English; she sees this as a real advantage in her business. She has also passed that focus to her son, who she prodded into chatting with me, too. Angela’s English allows her to communicate better with visiting tourists, and fosters a connection that she believes encourages them to buy her items. One of the things she details for tourists is the process of hand-dyeing the cotton and wool used in their artisan crafts. Angela and her family buy the cotton and wool raw, and then undertake the process of boiling the colors—many from natural sources. Like many of En Vía’s borrowers, Angela uses the loans to bulk purchase items at a discounted price, and to maintain productivity in off-season, so that the shop has a stock of goods ready for tourist season.


zapotec community san miguel del valle
Of the six communities that En Vía serves in the Oaxaca Valley, Josefa Hernandez Hernandez lives in San Miguel del Valle, the least touristed one. Josefa runs a shop stocked with clothes and toys imported from her sister-in-law, who lives in North Carolina. And while her shop does a steady business in town—there are no others like it—she also kept alive the family business of weaving tapetes. More recently, because of health concerns, her doctor advised that she should no longer weave on the heavy looms. With the support of an En Vía loan, Josefa uses her sewing machine to build stock in her shop of the town’s signature aprons, as well as handkerchiefs and other embroidered items. In towns as off-the-path as San Miguel, changing professions would usually incur impossible debt. Instead, Josefa continues to work and produce despite the needed shift her focus.


oaxaca family life weaving
Delfina Contreras Mendoza oozes charm and joy. Her house is in a gorgeous spot in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains overlooking Teotitlán. Delfina weaves gorgeous tapetes, rugs, on several large hand-operated looms that live in a covered courtyard in her home. Her husband’s carpentry workshop next door buzzed with noise during our visit, and I was lucky to catch two of her children at home. The older one worked the huge loom while his mom showed me her recent En Vía purchases. The youngest hung close to me so that he could show off his small woolen coasters, which are the first starting step as the children of weavers learn the family trade. Like many weavers, Delfina bought weaving supplies in bulk, and a huge variety of wool colors so she can expand her offerings. With several older children studying at university, she is hoping the En Vía loans will help grow her business and offset those high expenses.


freshly dyed wool for rugs in teotitlan del valle
There aren’t many tourists who make it up to the part of Teotitlán where Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López lives. So when I found myself turning my paper map in circles, desperately searching for a house number on that dusty track of road, I wasn’t sure I would ever find her house. Luckily, a husband and wife were nearby stoking a fire as they boiled a dark brown liquid that would dye the piles of raw wool. Needing help, I approached and asked for directions. When I visited these towns, I always needed to recite the woman’s entire name when asking for help since there are many similarly named women in every community. So I gave my spiel, asking where I could find Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López. The woman confirmed that I was close and directed me to the house next door. I trooped along and dutifully knocked on the door. Seconds later, that same woman answered the door with a huge grin. She had spotted me on the road, completely lost, and was keen to pull my leg. We had an appointment, so Lourdes knew that I was there on behalf of En Vía to photograph her recent loan purchases. All I could do was laugh at my goof and we both giggled together as she pulled piled her dyed wool, which would eventually become gorgeous tapetes, which would one day grace the walls and floors of visiting tourists.


tortilla maker in microfinance loan program
The warm, earthy scent of toasted corn tint my memories of Emiliana Antonio Miguel. When I first met Emiliana, she was supervising a team of volunteers who had journeyed from Minneapolis to build stoves for those women most in need. She produces hundreds of tortillas every day, and En Vía gifted her with a custom stove designed to meet her needs. The stove had three curved cooking plates, called a comal, and a spot to boil water. It all stood at waist height and allowed her to cook multiple tortillas at once, shortening the time she had to spend cooking each morning. Emiliana uses her En Vía loans to bulk purchase large sacks of corn (pictured behind her). Each time she saw me pass her home, which is located at the very center of town, she would pass me a fresh, warm tortilla. This made for ideal fuel as I huffed and puffed through the steep roads. If you’ve never had a large tortilla pulled off of a warm comal, then make it a bucket-list item — the flavor is unlike any tortilla you could buy in a store.


Teotitlan del Valle
Although weaving is the most popular artisan craft in Teotitlán, a handful of families specialize in candle-making. While her sister taught a cooking class upstairs, Sofia Ruiz Lorenzo showed me her workshop. Beautiful candles in various states of finish filled every corner. Candles have a strong significance in this region of Mexico — church ceremonies and indigenous rituals use large, elaborately decorated wax candles with flowing wax ribbons and colorful wax flowers. Sofia also explained that men are expected to present an intricate candle to the family of his future fiancé before he proposes. With so many events hinging on this skill, it’s no wonder that she is well-connected and respected in the community. Sofia started making candles when she was just nine years old; her paternal grandmother passed away and the family needed to finish the work she had started as a huge church even loomed. A natural talent, Sofia took to the task and has continued designing and constructing candles in the decades since. Sofia has two young daughters, and while she plans to teach them her craft, she also emphasized schooling and her dream that they will have a choice in their future work. Her loans have allowed her to cut significant costs from the candle production by buying 50 kilos of wax in bulk. This was once a huge expense when purchased kilo-by-kilo. It’s with these new opportunities that Sofia hopes to build a better future for her daughters.


Across the many months that I spent living in Oaxaca, it’s my time with the women in En Vía’s microfinance program that most profoundly shape my memories of this beautiful part of southern Mexico. I have traveled through many other parts of Mexico, from the Yucatan to my tiny west coast beach town. This time, however, I left Mexico with a more nuanced view of the peoples and cultures. It is through the deep connections to other people that I have found travel most transformative. These women welcomed me into their homes. They shared food and stories and laughter. I can only hope that I was able to give back as much as they offered me.

~Shannon


Visiting En Vía in Oaxaca, Mexico

What: Fundación En Vía offers tours for visitors interested in glimpsing rural life in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tours last most of the day and each tour visits about four women in a couple of the communities supported by En Vía’s microfinance program. At each stop, tourists chat with one of the borrowers, learn about her artisanal trade, business, or traditional food preparation. The entire tour fee is used 2.5 times to fund microloans for women. Once it’s been loaned and repaid twice, on the third time 50% of the fee goes back into the loan pool and 50% pays for the handful of employees running the foundation.

Where: En Vía’s main office is located in the central area of Oaxaca City. If you book a tour, they provide transportation from Oaxaca City into the Tlacolula Valley, which is where the women live.

When: The organization runs tours twice a week year-round, and offers extra tours during high season.

Volunteer: En Vía accepts long-term volunteers in a range of specializations. Those fluent in Spanish can act as tour guides. Basic proficiency in Spanish is needed for the photography volunteers. The foundation runs English language classes for kids in two of the towns and is always in need of teachers. And those with other skills can email and discuss if there is an opportunity to work with the program a special capacity (I met volunteers with health specializations, construction, computers, etc).

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.
Mother Georgia: A sign of Georgian Hospitality

A Little Hospitality… A Guest is a Gift from God

Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia in Tbilisi
Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia in Tbilisi

A throaty tenor danced across the inky night, joined moments later by a chorus of lighter voices. The empty footpath widened as I approached the Kartlis Deda statue. The disembodied voices echoed across the cool night. Lit in soft green, Mother Georgia towered above me. The nearby voices lifted in perfect harmony, swelling as the ethereal melody penetrated the darkness. They were my invisible welcoming committee to this iconic symbol of Tbilisi, but also an unexpected welcome to the kindness and hospitality that I would find across the Republic of Georgia.

During my two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia’s charming capital city, I had come to love the quick flash of a smile and the musical lilt of the Georgian tongue as locals welcomed me into the city’s shops and restaurants. The Georgian language is unrelated to any other on earth. Dating to the fourth century B.C.E., it’s also among the world’s oldest languages. Spoken Georgian pops and rolls from the mouth, with gritty consonants softened by a liquid cadence reminiscent of Italian. It’s the ending vowels on most words that affords the language a melodic quality, which carries into the nation’s long tradition of song.

Twenty minutes passed. I sat on the ledge and listened to them sing, their peaceful melodies flowing around me like a warm hug to insulate against the chilly hint of winter in the air. The city lights flickered in the distance. Landmarks glowed on the dark horizon—church steeples poked the heavy clouds, a glitzy bridge winked in technicolor. All the while, the group pitched their voices to carry far across the mountainside.

(Press play to hear their voices piercing the night with deep, heartfelt emotions.)

During my weeks wandering Georgia, I listened in awe as this style of singing filled the country’s many churchesOver hundreds of years, each region of Georgia developed a distinct singing style to record and express its ancient traditions. Throughout war and oppression, modern Georgians maintain strong links to their aural history. So beloved to the Georgians, and unique in the world, the country’s polyphonic singing is now inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

In time, curiosity overcame my timidity. I wanted to venture closer, but was nervous that they would see it as an intrusion. I crept down the staircase, pausing when I was within their view. It took but a moment for one woman to motion me closer. I leaned against the wall, now given an open invitation to listen. As the song faded to a close, a woman in her 20s broke from the group to sit near me. Natia was the only one able to communicate in English. She opened the conversation by passing me a beer and snacks from their communal pile. Then she plied me with questions about my reasons for visiting Tbilisi.

Likewise, I fed my curiosity. She spoke of how her friend-group gathered in the cool evenings to share company and share songs. It wasn’t a special occasion, but rather a way to revel in their friendship. Inviting me to join them was in that same spirit—an open offer devoid of expectation. Her invitation was a quintessential gesture of Georgian hospitality. She wanted me to feel welcome as a guest in her country.

In the 12th century, Georgia’s most beloved poet wrote The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Many believe that Shota Rustaveli’s poem encapsulates the true spirit of Georgia. Rustaveli espouses the idea of friendship as a powerful bond, a cult worthy of revere. A man is judged for his friendship over all other things. In Georgia, one single word, hospitality, epitomizes any visit.

Peter Nasmyth wrote of Rustaveli’s poem:

Certainly he espoused the doctrine of perfect love or the cult of friendship, still prominent in modern Georgian culture—and indisputably linked with the convention of hospitality.

Georgian culture of hospitality
The skyline of Tbilisi shimmering in below from the Mother Georgia statue.

Sitting under the Mother Georgia statute seemed serendipitous for an evening of Georgian hospitality. She stands tall and proud over the city. The items in her hands represent the twin beliefs underpinning much of modern Georgia. One hand holds a sword; a reminder to enemies that Georgia stands proud, free, and independent. In her other hand she offers a bowl of wine—an entreaty for visitors to feel welcome. For all the city to see, this statue is a reminder of the Georgian axiom that “a guest is a gift from God.”

In the mid 2000s, Georgia pulled out of its tumultuous history, and opened to tourism. A new generation of travelers can experience the country’s renowned culture of hospitality. While far from a tourist hotspot, the country is growing in popularity. Its food, wine, and traditions draw interest to that corner of the world, smack between the Great and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. I had dreamed of visiting many places as a child. Georgia wasn’t on the list. It didn’t have the gloss and glamour of Paris, Rome, and Prague. It was several years into my travels that I first considered visiting Georgia. I had little exposure to the Georgian culture, which is why it bowled me over with surprise. It’s such a lovely place and people. Like all countries, Georgia has issues. But also like all countries, fascinating cultural nuances lie just under the surface.

The hours melted away. As a group, we sipped beers and chatted. As a group, they continued breaking into song when the urge bubbled to the surface. It was never out-of-place for someone to pause the conversation and join harmonies. Each time, they finished a song with voices in perfect unison. Several songs were toe-tapping and lively. More often, their voices evoked a deep and heartfelt feeling of loss and longing. They seemed to echo the pain of a thousand centuries.

The sounds of that evening provided a soundtrack for my memories of traveling Georgia. They offered me a simple gift free of expectations. Taken in as a friend, they made me feel welcome. As their friend, I experienced a part of Georgia I hadn’t known awaited me. They welcomed me into their lives, into their circle of friendship, for an evening of cheerful camaraderie and song. Perhaps they sang of politics. Perhaps they sang of love. There’s even a chance they sang of friendship—I like to imagine that tenuous thread connecting me to them in that moment.