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.

[quote style="boxed" float="right"]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.[/quote] 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

[hr]

[fourcol_three]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.[/fourcol_three] [fourcol_one_last]

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp[/fourcol_one_last]

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.

[hr]

[threecol_two]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.[/threecol_two] [threecol_one_last]

eliminating FGM among the Maasai

Meeri

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

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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.

[hr]

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

[hr]

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.

[hr] [box border="full"]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.[/box]
Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Things to Do That Will Make You Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

[caption id="attachment_11985" align="alignright" width="500"]Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.[/caption]

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

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Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.  [/box]

beautiful grey cat

A Little Musing… On Beach-Vibes in Mexico and How the U.S. Has Lost It’s Sense of Community

Our home culture shapes the fabric of our understanding of the world. If we are raised in one country, we have one leading culture creating the schema for how we interpret everything from love to family to community. I grew up in the US, and no amount of travel will change that single fact. The views I bring to my travels were nurtured in an environment very different from many of the places I visit.

From this perspective, however, I can look at those differences and see them as that — more than chalking it up to a novelty and moving on, during my travels I look for the cultural patterns beneath the surface to understand and how they shape our lives. My life, of course, but also the everyday lives of people all over the world. There are niggling differences in some cases, and sweeping, deep differences in others. Many times this goes beyond location, religion, and race. It comes down to community.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]pretty cat The prettiest cat I’ve seen in ages gave me a cautious welcome as I wandered the streets of San Pancho, Mexico.[/caption]

[divider_flat]By and large the over-arching themes among cultures are similar. We all eat, we want education for the next generation, and research shows that even in the poorest of countries we crave a job that offers dignity and fulfillment. The nuances of getting there however — and how we achieve these things inside of societies — differ. Sometimes the differences do rest within religion, and many are often due to natural resources and wealth disparities too; things outside of the control of many people. There’s a lot that can be attributed to the developing aspect of these countries. But some differences are cultural and deep within the nature of how people choose to live and create the foundation of their lives.

To this end, once I left home for the first time, I began to find many economies built around a different foundation than what I had always known. Although mega stores exist all over the world now, in many places the towns operate under what I like to call single-purpose economies. That’s the best I can come up with to describe the fact that in many places I have visited, including my current home in San Pancho, Mexico, a single, weekly shopping trip to Target is not only unheard of, but it’s not desired either.

Stereotypes and generalizations are misleading, and so I don’t mean to paint too broad of a brush stroke here by intimating that no one likes the culture of multi-purpose mega-stores that expanded outward from the U.S. These stores play a needed role back home, and a similar role in other communities all over the world. Here in my tiny beach town, however, specialized shops and services continue to flourish far past their counterparts in most of the U.S., where corporations and chain stores have mostly beat the mom-and-pop shops into oblivion.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]The tortilla shop in San Pancho, Mexico. The one-stop shop for fresh, hand-made tortillas in San Pancho.[/caption] [divider_flat]

Now in some parts of small-town America still, and even the huge urban centers, there are micro-economies built around shops, businesses, and people with very niche jobs. Here in Mexico though, and it is not isolated to my small town, the single-purpose shops have stood out these past weeks in stark relief to the life I joined when I was back home last year. While Walmart is a monthly run for many Mexican families (and expats too!), life here is still mostly fueled by a network of niche shops that sell (and excel in) something.

Still not quite sure what I mean? Well, an average week sees me heading to the tortillería for freshly cooked tortillas — any variety imaginable on offer and I tend to purchase a stack of fresh tortillas, as well as a bag of deep-fried corn chips for my guacamole. Tortillas is all they sell; nothing else. Just tortillas.

Then the lavandería is a short bike ride away and returns freshly washed and pressed clothing. I don’t visit the carnicería, but the carnivores in town alternate the general meat-aria with the pollería — home of fresh chicken cut to order in any way shape or size you could desire for your dinner.

speacialty shops in mexico

Each shop serves a purpose, and through that specialization they serve this tiny town in a way the large super stores 40 minutes away never could. Back home I walk into a Target and walk out with my weekly groceries, prescriptions, and a new outfit if I choose. It’s convenient, to be sure. But what is lost in the convenience? I ask myself if I am, perhaps, romanticizing this notion. In the states, I am well and pleased to head to a single super market, conduct my business, and head home — as an American I tend to accept the bubbles we have created.

But here, romantic or not, I like it. And the locals perpetuate this system perhaps for the very same reason I love it too: It fosters community, connectedness, and a sense of independence mostly lost in the States. Even in the most connected of neighborhoods, with friendly faces and that aspect of community, I see us often operating as little islands in our commerce. This behavior has removed us not only from relating to each other, but often with the building blocks of life, our food.

I can rarely pinpoint why precisely I so resonate with life outside the United States, but this idea here — of interdependence — holds a piece of the reason. Mexico is but one of the countries where the niche shops and the single-purpose economy creates a system of communicating and interacting with others. Throughout Asia, India, and Europe even, there are more opportunities for connecting to a single person — their story and history — as you go about your own life.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]churro vendor The churro vendor sets up shop in preparation for the late afternoon snackers wandering around Sayulita.[/caption]

[divider_flat]In shopping for fruits and veggies from the produce trucks weaving through town, I meet the sons of farmers nearby. Weekly markets bring in vegetables from a bit farther afield, more variety but still a friendly face to share their story. I have lived in this small Mexican town for six weeks and already the fried chicken vendor (who I never eat from because we have already established she doesn’t offer vegetarian food) smiles and waves as my bicycle zips along the road.

The root of this idea began years ago because this type of economy is present in most places I visit, including many areas of Europe. But it struck me this past week because I see the way it fosters friendships and community in a way I often miss when I go home.  I have friends back home, just as I have them here in town, but those more grounded friendships are simply the foundation of enjoying this community. I equally love the network of friendly faces and shop owners who make up this town —and that is not something I have back home.

This economy of specialized skills and shops, if nothing else, allows me to integrate more immediately into each placed I visit, it opens the world up a bit because people live their lives more openly. I’ve talked about my love for the sidewalk cafe culture in Bosnia and community spaces in Cuba, and this plays into that same idea.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Love your world in tile relief in San Pancho, Mexico. “Love your world” in colorful tiles lines the outside wall of a primary school in San Pancho, Mexico.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The desire to create a community where you know your neighbors enough to leave your front door wide open, or you pass by you actually stop for a chat. Arriving in a new city over-and-over again — as I have done these past few years — sounds adventure-filled, but it can be a lonely business as you settle in, look around and spread the tentative web of friendships. Within two weeks of arriving here, however, the shop owners pegged me as a regular face, and with that status has come a familiarity that breeds idle chit-chat, lazy conversations, and a refreshing friendliness.

This same thing was often the case in Chiang Mai, Thailand, although the language barrier often prevented anything more than recognition and smiles in many cases. Here however, with Spanish easily on hand, I have people who ask after my day, children chase me down to say hello, and shop owners wave as I pedal past.

Back home, in our rush for convenience, I fear we are missing the whole point. I have been taking the advice of everyone who commented on my post about life and uncertainty earlier this month, and I am relaxing. Sunsets on the beach, whale watching with friends, and days spent exploring and photographing my town, meeting people, talking, and sometimes just letting the tiny shops and smiling locals pull me deeper into this charming beachside community in Mexico.

indian man drinks chai

A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion

Moments and anecdotes from my travels flutter into my memory at the most random of moments. I’ve talked about this feeling in the past on A Little Adrift, in my post on “How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me,” the most seemingly odd smell or sound triggers the memory of a conversation had over dish of Thai curry, or a bag of pumpkin seeds shared in the bed a bumpy pickup truck, some without a common language, but with shared smiles. Memories bubble to the surface every day, and I think now, looking back,  it’s the small moments that I recall most often that would have surprised the Shannon of four years ago.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]indian chai tea An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India[/caption]

Before I left to travel, I had grand plans for the major wonders of the world I would see, and the adventurous activities I would do. I would dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Himalayas, teach English in a monastery, stand in awe of the Taj Mahal … I filled the list with things to do, things I am so grateful to have now already done and seen some of the awe-inspiring things in this world, but I had little concept at the time that the sites and activities were the backdrop to my travels. Living on the road for four and a half years meant four years of eating three meals a day, talking, reading, doing laundry, travel days, and thousands of hours of shared conversations.

If you had asked me in 2008 what the term “cultural immersion” meant, I would have likely honed in on the fact that I planned to travel through countries and would thus meet locals, ask questions, and learn more about each culture’s nuances and peculiarities. The reality of traveling comes down to much more than that, in many ways, my emphasis on doing things has now changed a bit. If you are open to learning you can’t escape cultural immersion, it’s in every facet of the culture and the way people interact with me, even in the most touristy of places.

Now, I travel to learn more, to observe, and experience the story of a new place, and many times this is easiest when I slip off the tourist trail, grab the local bus in the wrong direction and simply allow the travel experience to take over. But that’s only one aspect of it. It’s a bit of a romantic notion for me to say that my most enriching experiences happen in rural areas on buses in the middle of nowhere, because although I learn a lot during those parts of my travels, it’s often the times in cities that add context.

Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite little cities, and I wrote a post about why I love that little town, and as I thought about immersing, it called to mind my conversations over chai and the hilarity that ensued in the most touristy, backpackery part of Kathmandu.

Though I would deeply love to know every language on earth, I barely know three. English is not always widely spoken in the rural areas of the world—in fact not a single restaurant owner or shop in my tiny volunteer town in Nepal spoke English. Fantastic for immersion, not so fantastic for answering questions about what I was seeing around me each day. And so, it’s both the immersive and the “touristy” experiences—the interplay of the two—that form my most memorable moments in travel.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]san pancho mexico Snapshots from my last two weeks living in my tiny Mexican town.[/caption]

I thought a lot about cultural immersion and traveling recently because I settled into a tiny expat town in Mexico this past week. And I surprised myself with the decision to stay here. I came to Mexico partly to polish off my Spanish—it’s been years in the making and I am ready to just dedicate the time and effort to feeling more fluent.

Not that I need too much Spanish here. The town is tiny—one main road that leads straight to the beach. And as I said, it’s full of expats. It’s so small in fact, that there is only one coffee shop in town. Yes, one. That was very nearly a deal-breaker, but it makes a kick-ass Americano and I was appeased on that front.

But for some reason I felt guilty when I first chose to stay here, I felt that I should “go more local” and set up shop in a more “Mexican” town. As if that would make me more of a traveler maybe? I am here though, and I want to stay. I have friends in this town, fellow travel bloggers Steve and Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, and an instant community of locals and expats alike because in a town this small the divide between the two is almost negligible. There is also a wonderful community center here, EntreAmigos, which runs classes for all the nearby children, creates art from the town’s recyclables, and is just outside my doorstep—I started volunteering there yesterday and will continue tutoring and doing after-school English lessons over the next several months.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]palm trees and sky Palm trees and blue skies on the quiet streets[/caption]

Cultural immersion can mean so many things, and there are those who think you have to abandon the mainstream tourism path to experience travel, but there are moments and opportunities everywhere to dive into the culture. I’m still learning this. And some places, albeit, are easier than others, but I am happy here … and after just two weeks the shop owners give me a wider smile when I walk in the door—the hello of recognition, that beginning sign of belonging somewhere, even if it’s just for a few months.

More reports will be coming in the months to follow on food (expect many taco photos in your future … and mine), volunteering, life here, and—as always—I will continue to play catch-up with all the stories and memories over the past four years that haven’t yet made it onto this site. A friend from Florida asked me last month why I have never shared on my blog some of the anecdotes I tell over the dinner table when I am back home with friends, and his question struck me as true. Sometimes in search of a good travel story, I forget to share some of the random moments on the road, some of my personal journey. Working on that, and other things, and simply enjoying my new little Mexican town I am calling home for the next few months!

monks in mandalay u bein bridge

A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.

Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.

Roti

Celebrations are underway as a passing tuk-tuk is pummeled with water! Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Buddha with strings at a wat on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand

When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.

I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.

In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Golden flourishes at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.

Warm smiles.

Open conversation.

A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.

All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.

A wai from a monk statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Details at a temple during one of my many wanders through the Wats in Chiang Mai.

My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.

And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.

Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened.  I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?

monks at Maha Gandayon Monastery in Mandalay
Monks line up for lunch at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.

The churches of Europe.

The temples of Asia.

The mosques of the Middle East.

These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.

The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.

We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.

In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dragon details guarding the entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat Phra Singh in at night Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite temple in Chiang Mai, a small one that I would pass each night on my way home.

The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!

And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.

While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.

I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.

food temple thailand
Street food vendors at a local festival dish out piping hot, fresh eats.

Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.

chapati stand mandalay

Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.

In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.

As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.

A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.

And yet, now it’s time to move on.

It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.

Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset near Mandalay, Myanmar.

For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth.  :)

Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?

sunset angkor wat

A Little Perspective … How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me

When I talk about the direction my life has taken over the years, and what I think about for my future, I find myself circling around the fact that the act of near constant travel these past four years has shifted my perspective on life in tangible and identifiable ways. It shifted who I am, who I want to be, and how I perceive myself. And ultimately, it changed how I see and interact with the nearly every aspect of the world around me: family, jobs and career goals, political views, consumerism and consumption, friendships and my relationships. A time or two, I’ve alluded to these changes on A Little Adrift, but never have I elaborated—neither in person, nor on this site, nor even to myself.

But, it seemed appropriate to celebrate my four-year anniversary of travel this month (I left on election day 2008) with a look back on how I feel now—four years later, dozens of countries, hundreds of experiences, thousands of memories, stories, ideas, and challenges. The years have been filled with so much; I feel blessed by the opportunities I have had, and it’s surreal for me when I think of my first year on the road. I have a terrible memory, which means I can’t recall specific events off the top of my head. Ask me for a highlight from my travels and my brain blanks, little slices of panic creep in for a moment … surely I have something intelligent to say about four years of near constant travel. But I often don’t, and I falter and smile and come up with something that suffices but that rarely encapsulates the highs and the lows, the new perspectives and ideas.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Graffiti in Shanghai, China These buildings in Shanghai are marked for demolition with graffiti; we saw this symbol all over the country as China destroys pieces of the past to make cities appear newer/fresher for events like the Olympics and World Expo.[/caption]

Instead, a certain smell triggers my memories. Or perhaps the quality of setting sunshine casting shadows over a landscape pulls in delicate threads of all the past experiences that echo how I felt at that moment, what happened before and after that moment, and the shifts that were happening inside of me.

Because travel is personal.

For me, the memories, reflections, and changes are intertwined with far more than simply being there. It’s more than the fact that I watched sunrise very nearly on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, and instead that experience is indelibly linked to the fact that I cried for nearly an entire hour because we left at 4am, we hadn’t had breakfast, my blood sugar was tanking, and I surrendered instead of continuing. I camped out on a rock while the rest of my group continued to the summit and watched the hazy and cloudy sunrise alone. Sure, I can tell the story of a sunrise in the Himalayas if it occurs to me (which rarely happens) … but that memory only crops up when it’s linked to a me reflecting on failure in a quiet place. Like I did on that mountainside three and a half years ago.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="413"]hiking annapurna nepal Two men quietly talk in the early evening high in a town we paused in for mere minutes while I hiked along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal.[/caption]

I try to record key moments on my blog, experiences that resonated and changed me in some way, and the journey these past four years, but I invariably miss a lot. And I often leave out the major arch and themes—the reflections on what has shifted when looked at from a macro perspective of four years, not just perspective shifts in a single moment.

Last month, a reader emailed me with a simple request: “You asserted on your site that travel has shifted your perspective—How? Why? What is your perspective now?” Throughout the week I received that email, I pondered a response and dug deep to come up with something that would encapsulate what I feel and express something I had never yet put down on paper. Two days later, yet another question—quite similar in nature—popped up in my email. He wrote: “How has your perspective on your own country changed now that you see it through a more globalized lens.”

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Nepali Nuns from Arya Tara Two young female monks (nuns) at the Arya Tara school just outside of Pharping, Nepal.[/caption]

While I’m not superstitious, I do mostly field travel-specific reader queries via email (questions about the how-tos and the technical aspects of it all), so two questions in the same week told me this warranted a closer look more deeply into the effect my travels have had on me.

It was hard to formulate a response that did the question justice in a single email. And the response is dynamic, which is likely why I never quite tackled answering this question. Ask me in another year, five years, even ten, and my answer will morph to include elements of every new realization and experience. My response changes with every new development in my life, and every trip I take. In conversation, my statements about travel changing me are assumed true by those who have never traveled, and echoed by those who have traveled, but rarely articulated by anyone involved. The assertion is my truth and accepted as such. But there is more to it, there are personal thoughts I have penned over the years that stand out as moments that changed the direction and my path in life. So, with that in mind, I will attempt to break down some of what has gone on inside myself over the years.

On my background …

At the most basic level, travel has humbled me and expanded my perception of my place in the world. I grew up in the United States and the circumstances of life insulated me from a visceral experience within any other culture. I did not grow up wealthy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I grew up in suburbia in a split household (my father raised me, my mother raised my brothers) and exotic for us was the luxury of eating at a delicious Thai restaurant my dad favored as I was growing up—no international travel for me, but I knew other places existed and in my teens my parents traveled to Ireland together. I had food on my plate every day, clothes from the second-hand store, and new toys and books under the Christmas tree each year. That was my normal and the foundational basis for my America, my version of what many outsiders see as the American dream—not perfect, not wealthy, but enough.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]lake districts england A solo one-handed self-portrait in the sheep-filled pastures in the Lakes District, England in my first year of solo travel.[/caption]

Once I left my bubble in the U.S., I was thrust into new situations outside my realms of previous experience. I saw extreme wealth living aside startling poverty; I met people with radically divergent religious views. People who hated my country but not me. People who loved my country and assumed my America was a land of great wealth, equality, and outrageous opportunities. Opinions, stories, and new baseline realities were shoving into me at startling speeds.

The pace of life quickens when you’re outside of your home base.

The comfort of familiarity was gone and I was a stranger in each new place, the new experiences stacked up faster than I could write them down. That first, mostly solo year on the road was, in a way, my boot camp on life and perhaps the quickest period throughout which I assimilated new lessons. But it was the ensuing years that allowed me to process what I was experiencing; and it is over the years that I formed opinions, ideas, and patterns based on my shifting perspective and the lessons I’ve learned.

And there have been many lessons. Personal lessons and personal growths that were hard-learned and boy were some of them earned. And wider lessons, on truths and patterns that exist outside the knowledge bubble I operated from for the majority of my life.

On the lessons and changes along the way …

Over the years, the nuggets of similar truths found in every city, town, and village I passed through often surprised me. Amidst poverty and hunger, I felt a commonality of shared experiences—a desire within a person to better themselves, or perhaps a parent working diligently day and night on the hope of a better life for their child. The circumstances of the people I have met while traveling were often so seemingly disparate from the suburbia of my youth, but yet underneath, deep within the travel experience were common themes. I found common hopes and common fears within each person’s story. Witnessing this, hearing the stories and feeling the inherent kindness of communities all over the world, has broadened my sense of self, and my understanding of the threads of connection binding us all.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan[/caption]

I have learned that relative wealth—the wealth we have in the West in the form of opportunities and a government that generally provides basic services and support—does not isolate us from similar common human experiences. Though I have never gone hungry or wondered about my next meal, I do understand loss. I watched loss echo off the dense trees of a remote mountainside in Nepal as a keening wife followed a funeral procession down mountain behind her husband, gone to soon. And the deep pain in that woman’s voice jarred me back  several years, to sitting on a couch as my mother processed my brother’s sudden death. Both were deep losses, both illustrate shared commonality that crosses cultures—a shared humanity connecting without regard for culture or wealth, class or color.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]bus in india Roof-top seats on a very, very full bus in India was the norm, rather than the exception.[/caption]

And then there are the things I see and have yet to assimilate, yet to turn into “lessons” … the things I don’t yet know how to process and accept as reality. The haunting eyes of a child with a distended belly, dirty hands, and probing eyes gave me a regular glimpse at the devastating effects of wealth disparity … children are starving to death every single day, and yet children in my life throw temper tantrums because they don’t “like” the taste of some food provided for them in great quantity and on a daily basis. And I know there is a flaw in direct comparisons. I see this though, and there is a pain as I attempt to reconcile the two realities … but then the travel moment changes, the pickup truck engine starts again and the faces fade into a cloud of rough red dust. Or maybe something happens at the dinner table to channel focus elsewhere, off of the children, and the moment is over, blending into the next experience with the only commonality between these moments me, as the witness.

On who I am today …

I am a traveler and a sometimes outsider to life. In both places, home and on the road I witness both experiences, I assimilate what I have seen without judgment on a good day, joy on a great day, and sadness on a bad day. I observe and try to understand it all. Try to focus my lens into crystal clear clarity, though I know there are some things for which there is no easy answer. I am often at a loss about what I can say in the tough moments both here and on the road, so I mostly stay silent. And I post pretty photos and tell the happy stories.

And what does all of this mean for me, each day after four years of travel?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.[/caption]

At the core of it all, travel has recalibrated the point of view through which I approach problems and situations in my life, it has given me a sense of gratitude for what I have in my life through nothing more than circumstance of birth, and even more grateful for my ability to share that message with others. I know more, and though I have learned much, I understand less than I once thought. My view of the world has taken flight like a bird—outside of the microcosm of my country there is a pulsating planet of other people, like me and yet so very different; so different from what I am, have ever been, and will ever be. I appreciate travel if for no other reason than for the fact that I now feel more able to take the proverbial step into another person’s shoes and imagine their struggles, feel their hopes, and respect their successes and failures.

Travel has made me feel more deeply for other people and has put into perspective the highs and lows in this world. I hurt more and I love more deeply, I see more joy and much more sorrow, I’m more introspective and less impatient. I argue just as passionately but with a lot more experiences to call upon, and a place deep in my soul now understands the meaning of the word solitude, which has taught me to seek the friendships, conversations, and slices of happiness I can find.

In short, travel changed my life.

A Little Tourism … A Laid-Back Laos, and Our Shrinking World

Returning to Laos was an education on how tourism can affect a country; the difference a mere three years has made in Laos at times seemed inconsequential—unpaved roads were still riddled with jolting, bone-shaking potholes, and a slow and syllabic “sabaidee” hello generously rang into the warm afternoon air  from sweetly grinning locals standing in their shop doorways. Then, the same as now, the (often excited) ring of falang, or rather westerner, dipped and flowed into conversation as I walked through the small towns with my niece, Ana.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Monks houay xai, laos Monks all over Asia generally learn English as soon as they enter the monkhood, and throughout my time in SEA, I seek out monks in new cities because they are always eager and willing to share information, stories, and cultural history. At sunrise, these monks were no exception in Houay Xai, Laos–great English and eager smiles![/caption]

So much my return to Laos felt like a “welcome back, Shannon, we have been here waiting for your return.” I spent a month in Laos in early 2009 and fell in love with the slow days and easy smiles. Now though, that “welcome back” has a gleam of Westernization spritzed with a glitter stick over the well-traveled backpacker route through Laos. Towns where the thought of internet access was laughable when I visited in January 2009, are now littered with discreet signs proudly announcing: “we have WiFi,” “we speak English,” “book any of a gazillion different tours right here and we will hold your hand as we show you around town.”

It’s worth noting that I threw my toilet paper in the toilet…yes, right inside the toilet bowl instead of a trash can nearby. Okay, not everywhere. In fact, not even most places, but there are places with fully flushing toilets in Luang Prabang and that, my friends, is a gigantic flying leap different from the dank and dark squat toilets (and I considered those good toilets!) of just three years past.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Slow Boat in laos The Slow Boat back in 2009, complete with rickety wooden benches![/caption]

In short, the tourism path is cleaner, neater, better organized, more comfortable, more expensive, and just more than it was three years ago. And thankfully, it’s also not less Laos than I remember–throughout these new developments, the people and sentiments felt largely the same, and the political maneuvering with the rural ethic minorities is still a sad and ongoing game.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] Cushy bus seats take the place of the wooden pews of the past on the crowded boat down the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

The UNESCO protections in place in Luang Prabang safeguarded the city from any sort of modern face-lift over the past few years, a protection not in place in Laos’ capital city,Vientiane, where tall cinder-block hotels and offices line the streets in a disjointed jumble and cavernous holes gap in the skyline in a wave of new, and often unfinished, construction.

The country has changed; and I have changed too, to be sure. Over the past few years, I often listed Laos as one of the highlights from my round the world travels. Going back this time, I realized there was more at work during that trip, and it’s this “other” that likely played a part in why I enjoyed traveling the country so much.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]laos children These two excited girls goofed off for the camera in rural Laos; their very basic English elicited shouted “hellos!”[/caption]

This time, I realized I cannot reconstruct the past, there is no way to recreate a moment from my past travels no matter how much I loved it in that moment. I backpacked Laos with Laura, a good friend from the years I lived in Los Angeles, and we did the more footloose and fancy-free activities. Back then, we struggled for an internet connection strong enough to support a quick and choppy Skype chat home, I got sicker than I have ever been in my life, and we spent days upon days on slow boats and buses as we crisscrossed the country.

I returned with Ana last month, unsure of what I would find as took that same route down the Mekong River. Not too surprisingly, the road infrastructure is still in transition (meaning they rely on dirt roads outside of the tourist route) and there were still many weary, long travel days. But, I noticed that very same glitter stick struck some of the more popular guidebook towns. Wifi. Western restaurants. Packaged experiences playing to the interest in Southeast Asia’s ethnic minorities (and some not doing so very ethically, I might add).

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] A colorful line of bicycles for rent on the streets in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

But then, I look to the positive side of tourism…and the fact that this is, after all, still Laos. There was more wealth spread throughout the large towns (hints of that are trickling down to the smaller towns). Large-scale tourism brings money, and when it’s done well (and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case in Laos), it can positively augment the way me, as a traveler, sees and experiences a place.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Street scenes from Hongsa, Laos A woman carries home her purchases from the market in Hongsa, Laos[/caption]

There are many elements of tourism done well in Laos. Luang Prabang had a range of grassroots and local projects. Ana and I took a full day weaving class from an organization supporting cultural preservation in Laos. We learned a traditional stenciling method the monks use to decorate new temples. Fair-trade shops abound. The food is delicious, plentiful, and safe to eat (more-so as Western sanitation standards make themselves known). With tourism comes more English, and that meant asking more questions from our guides and guesthouse owners so we could understand the nuances.  And, the glitter stick version of Laos had its up side, because without it, I’m not sure Ana would have enjoyed the country nearly as much. Whereas I, as an adult, love sipping an afternoon coffee watching the boats drift down the Mekong River, she needed engagement on a different level, which we found in the various towns at the local level where just the mere hint of English being spoken meant we had enough charades and gesturing to still be fun but could get our point across.

I’m still reflecting on my return to Laos (and plan some stories and photo-essays in the coming weeks), but my conclusion is: Laos has changed, but the essence of the country, and the warmth of the Laotians leave this country in a special place in my traveling heart.

A Little Insight… Crazy Quirks & Fun Facts About Thailand

In the early days of A Little Adrift I used to have a page on the site completely dedicated to the fun facts and tidbits I discovered in each new country. I called the page “Strangeness” and it hosted the raw, unfiltered and seemingly meaningless quirky facts that rarely make it into my travel stories. I was new to travel and everything around surprised and delighted me. I filled the Australia page with things like: Note to self, brekkie=breakfast and thongs=sandals, not ladies underwear. Incredibly useful stuff there, I know.  ;-)

And since I’ve landed in Thailand and will be living in Chiang Mai for quite some time, it’s time to look at fun facts you should know about Thailand—in general, and as a traveler heading that way!

Fun & Interesting Facts About Thailand

Map of Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian countries. Thailand is in yellow, surrounded by many nearby cultures, languages, and influences. I live in Chiang Mai, that dot in the north!

Before I travel through any new place I read up on the history. And while far from scholarly, Wikipedia is my go-to source. Thailand’s Wikipedia entry gives a great overview of each facet of Thai history, geography, economy, etc. Also, I actively veer away from stereotypes and gross generalizations about a country, but that being said, take this as a fun and not-authoritative-at-all list.  :)

Wait, Before we Get Started, Where is Thailand?

For a quick geography lesson, Thailand is smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia and bordered by four countries: Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. And because of its location, Thailand’s culture and history are heavily influenced from India and China.

1. You’ll need both a spoon and a fork for that dish!
Thai people eat most dishes with a spoon in their dominant hand and forks easily leverage food onto the spoon. This comes in handy because Thai food is so tasty, and when I’m using a spoon it’s a lot easier to shovel food into my mouth! Of note is the fact that chopsticks are really only used for eating soups, otherwise you can mostly expect your dish served with a spoon and/or fork.

2. For the perfect dessert, just look for ice cream and white bread!
Desserts are of a different ilk here, and one of the more popular desserts is ice cream sandwiched between a piece (or two) of white bread. They don’t traditionally eat bread with meals (that’s what the rice is for), and bread is most often served sweet. Yum! Seriously, don’t knock bread and ice cream ‘til you’ve tried it. It was an odd combination, and I have never craved it again, but I’m glad I sampled it once in my life!

3. When in doubt, they’ll probably just add condensed milk.
Condensed milk is a staple here so it seems, it’s sold on the shelf of every 7-11 and Tesco Lotus and the syrupy sweet flavor compliments both drinks and desserts. Thai food often has a sweet component to it (they sugar their food with table sugar!) and the near obsession here with condensed milk is another facet of that sweet tooth!

Thailand fun facts
A sweet smile from Jenny as she holds the village’s youngest resident; Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai.

4. Known as “The Land of Smiles,” Thailand delivers on the promise.
Thailand’s tourism pushes the image that the country is the “land of smiles” and this is mostly true. Thais generally prefer harmony over open social conflict so it’s rare to get into altercations on the streets and I find the vendors and locals regularly offer up warm smiles and greetings. It’s also worth noting though, that smiling is the default reaction for Thais in a range of situations very different from the West. For example, a smile from a Thai person can show their personal embarrassment, or they smile to relieve your personal embarrassment, smiles come out of fear, remorse, and even tension. It varies – so yes, everyone is smiling, but it not always because they’re happy! :)

Buddha Chiang Mai, Thailand
A large golden Buddha statue at Wat Prah Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

5. The wai is necessary and brush up on Thai social protocols.
Many Asian cultures have a different social hierarchy in place and Thailand is no exception. The hierarchy is present within families, friendships, and nearly all social situations. The most pronounced manifestation of this is the wai, a gesture of raised, clasped hands in front of your body. A person’s relationship to you, age, and their “status,” for lack of a better word, defines how low you should bow your head when giving a wai in greeting and thanks.

6. Toy pet accessories are definitely a thing.
Many Thai people cart around the tiny, fluffy, yappy dogs and perch them in purses, and on their motorbikes. Excluding the motorbike phenomenon, it equally baffles to me to see this same trend in the U.S.

7. Bangkok has the longest city name in the world.
The full name written out is: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Try saying that ten times fast!

8. Though Thai is the official language in Thailand but one of many spoken.
Besides hearing Thai in the predominantly Thai areas, you will also find Lao, Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Akha, and Karen. And that’s just to start, there are many other smaller ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultures depending on where in Thailand you travel!

9. The name “Thailand” is a relatively new addition to the country’s long history.
Until this century, Thailand was actually called Siam throughout history; the name changed to Thailand in 1939.

10. Thai people are fiercely proud.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power. That was quite a feat since Europeans colonized seemingly everywhere for a good while and there was a lot of French influence in other countries in the region. But Thai people are rightly proud their culture and food remains free of the colonial cultural influences rampant in Laos and Vietnam.

11. The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy.
Thailand is among the most populated constitutional monarchies in the world and it has a King. The long reigning, late Bhumibol Adulyadej was well-loved and respected throughout Thailand. His son took over in 2016. Note that sarcasm and levity concerning the King is not appreciated or allowed—it’s against the law to say anything bad about the royal family.

12. U.S. politics don’t hold a candle to the complexities of Thai politics.
The Thai political situation is very, very complex and nuanced and there are many people better suited to explaining Thai politics than myself.

13. Pick most any given day and it’s probably a holiday in Thailand.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it does feel like it! I always take note of upcoming holidays and ask around before planning anything big just to ensure I don’t get to a temple/park/shop/event and find everything closed! There are major national holidays, and then regional ones, too. There’s seemingly always something festive and fun happening.

14. The country is deeply spiritual and Buddhism is the main religion.
More than 90 percent of the population Buddhist. And let me tell you, you can tell when traveling through because there are wats (temples), Buddha statues, and mini offerings everywhere.

Alms Monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Monks line up during an alms-giving in Chiang Mai during Songkran, Thai New Year.

When I looked around me over the past week (eek! It’s been a full week here!!) these are some of the fun facts about Thailand and random things I have found along the way and that have jogged my memories from past travels. It’s far from comprehensive, and my niece has been the one to point out several of the oddities to me now that she’s here (she likes the tiny dogs in particular), but it’s always something new and intriguing here on a daily, if not hourly basis. :)

Traveled in Thailand or dreaming of traveling there? What fascinates you most about the country?

Thailand Travel Guide

My free country guide includes everything you should know when planning a trip to Thailand. From the best things to do, how to get around, and even responsible actions you can take once there.