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.
massai

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Grassroots Tourism Edition

My mornings in Uganda are a noisy affair as the town wakes up, birds and roosters too. But oh, the views.  The small town of Jinja is home to the point where the Nile River branches off from Lake Victoria, also known as the Source of the Nile. I found a shady spot and watched the boats criss-cross the waters for hours. This was a needed a break from catching up on work after traveling through remote regions of Kenya these past few weeks.

And speaking of those remote regions, I uncovered some wonderful community based initiatives. Good stuff, can’t wait to share more.

Source of the Nile River
The Source of the Nile River in Uganda flows from Lake Victoria. The river exits the lake in the lower left of the photo and flows to Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Time with the Maasai

Picture the statuesque figure of a Maasai warrior standing tall over the vast plains of East Africa. This iconic image is relatable to most of us who grew up on a steady diet of watching the National Geographic channel. Like anyone planning East Africa travels, I wanted to learn more about their culture. Ethically undertaking the task though, was harder.

Maasai women
Women from Maji Moto’s widow’s village welcome us to their compound with a lively traditional song and dance.

And the problem is, there are lots of opportunities, but not all are positive tourism initiatives.

My safari trip last month in Tanzania included a short visit to a Maasai camp on the path between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The cultural experience set me back a mere $10 and the Maasai performed a spirited welcome dance and offered back story on the Maasai people. On the surface it was fascinating, here was the intricate and beautiful beadwork adorning the necks of the women. Warriors carried their sharp spears, a reminder of their fierce capabilities. And yet, 30 mins later, as we left the small circling of manyattasmud hutsthe experience felt hallow. It was a canned tourist experience repeated many times a day, week in, week out as safari tourists flood into the region.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself searching the markets of Narok, Kenya for Salaton, a charismatic Maasai chief running a cultural camp near Maasai Mara National Park.  A camp representative contacted me over the holidays, and from pre-trip research, the Maji Moto Cultural Camp looked like the perfect execution of a community-driven social enterprise. , I love supporting these types of businesses on the road (like in Panama and Thailand). At the core, this form of tourism puts the solution to a social issue directly into the hands of a local community. Social enterprises allow them to develop a sustainable solution on their own terms. (And it’s this exact tourism model that GV supports and it’s also the reason for my NatGeo honor.)

Maasai woman
I took a sunset hike to a nearby rock outcropping to learn more of the Maasai culture and stories. The view of the Loita Plains was stunning and vast.
Meeting the Maasai at Maji Moto
Decked out in traditional jewelry I borrowed so I could attend a nearby ceremony with Meri and Salaton, our two primary guides for my week in the African bush living at their cultural camp.
Sunrise over the Loita Plains in Kenya
Sunrise is a bold affair over the Loita Plains of Kenya. I bolted awake each morning just before 6am to the sounds of bird song and morning quiet and rushed from my manyatta so I could catch that day’s sunrise.

Salaton’s camp is a reversal from the idea of assembly line tourism. Rather than push tourists through the camp to increase revenue and appease snap-happy, camera-toting tourists, the Maasai at Maji Moto guide visitors into respectful interactions and welcome them to immerse in the traditional village life.

I joined a small group of touring medical volunteers to learn more about Salaton’s business model and the camp. Funds from the cultural camp support a nearby school, a health clinic, and a widows village he started to provide a safe-haven for girls escaping early marriage or genital circumcision.

My experiences over the five days I spent at Maji Moto are among my favorite from my Africa travels. I have thousands of photos to edit, more thoughts to process, and stories brimming to come to the surface from that week!

Learning about Rural Health Issues

Just after leaving Maji Moto, I met with Dan Ogola, the founder of a large health initiative in one of the poorest provinces in Kenya. Dan founded the Matibabu Foundation in 2001 to address the pervasive health issues in Ugenya, Kenya. What started as a single clinic for maternal and child health is now a hospital, a girl’s school, a nursing school, and much more.

matibabu, kenya
Visiting the Matibabu Health Clinic in Kenya. Right now we’re debating if I need another baby on my lap… the verdict? One will do. :-)

Dan asked me to visit his projects with the hope that through GV I can access long-term teaching, agricultural, and medical volunteers for his projects. After days of kind hospitality in this rural community, I am committed to supporting his projects. I also agreed to take on the title of Goodwill Ambassador for maternal child health; this role will allow me to continue working with Matibabu and supporting their efforts.

Weeks of low internet access means I still have hundreds of photos to process before I write more about my time in this rural region of Kenya. Realistically, this will happen in June when I return stateside.

What’s Next?

What dispatch would be complete without an update on what’s next?! I arrived in Uganda a few days ago and have reveled in lots of connectivity (during my time in the rural regions I mostly just had 3G on my phone… on a good day).

Next week I meet up with my favorite traveling and blogging couple, Dan and Audrey. They are finishing up a tour of the region and we plan on some hiking funnies together here and in Rwanda.

If you know of any projects I should check out in either of these two countries, please let me know!

Many thanks,

~Shannon

la Boqueria market Barcelona

A Little Reflection … Lost in the Streets and Stories of Spain

Since childhood Spain pulled my focus and imagination. I studied my history books and learned about the country’s role in early exploration. I lamented the nuances of the Spanish language as my high school brain battled to grasp so.many.tenses. I often plopped myself on my bed and gave intense focus to the photographs of the art and architecture in my travel magazines. And as I got older, the stories of Spain’s food culture fascinated me with equal parts excitement at the possibilities of new flavors and fear for my vegetarian sensibilities.

The incredibly busy streets surrounding the Placa Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.

Spanish and Catalan flags wave from a building in Barcelona, Spain.The thin streets of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, Spain.

Last fall, I was given the opportunity to speak at a travel conference outside of Barcelona. As you would imagine, it wasn’t a hard decision. In fact, within moments my fingers flew to the keyboard to accept the speaking gig. Two months later, I landed in Spain to spend my week in the country exploring with an enthusiasm fitting to my long-held fervor to visit. And fervor I had; I walked the streets of Barcelona until blisters layered over blisters from the hours spent treading on cobblestone streets—they’re picturesque but brutal.

And though I loved my days in Barcelona after a fashion, that fact is not so much the point of this story. You see, those first days in Spain were odd on one level because of my mostly two years spent traveling Southeast Asia, as well as my newly minted status as a solo traveler since my niece stayed home. By landing in Europe, I arrived to a city and people with a culture similar to my own, but different enough in history and language to disorient. In fact, it disoriented me to the point that I withdrew from my usual style of travel: immediate immersion through food, language, and wandering to odd places in the city.

A statue of a boy drinking from a jug in Barcelona, Spain.Up close with the fountain in the Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain.

Delicate statues and carvings on the churches of Barcelona, Spain.

Days passed before I adjusted to the new culture and to traveling solo again, a fact again reinforcing my ideas that the places I visit mirror back to me how I feel at that moment. My book launch was weeks away, Ana was stateside homeschooling herself for a week, and there I was, landing in an unfamiliar city … well, it threw me. And it would have been easy to hold that uncertainty against Barcelona itself, but it just took an adjustment.

I needed a re-calibration of my traveling norms until I lost myself in the beauty of Barcelona—lost myself in the cathedrals and narrow, cobbled streets. In the tapas and sweet wines. In the gregarious conversations buzzing well into late evening at the city’s sidewalk cafes.

It was a different sort of lost, though, to get lost in the European churches and echoes of Western history … it’s new and interesting but not foreign. Not in the way Asia shocks and jostles the senses in those first moments as a traveler shakes hands with the continent and gives a cautious hello. If I was in the business of ranking feelings of awe—and I’m not—Spain would sit in a different place inside me than when I first scented tangy incense on the air in Bangkok and heard the lilting chant of monks at nearby temple.

The gorgeous entryway to Santa Maria del Mar, a church with Catalan Gothic styles, in Barcelona, Spain.

The beautiful Santa Maria del Mar church in Barcelona, Spain.

Doorway in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, Spain.A gorgeous roundabout centerpiece in Barcelona, Spain.

The edifice of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Spain.Statue in a roundabout at the waterfront in Barcelona, Spain.

Though the United States lacks the Western history to have a Gothic quarter, I identify with this story of the world. I understand the Christian influences and the stories of Spanish port towns sending ships to the Americas. I know what comes next in a way that doesn’t exist in my personal story of the world when I think about Asia. You see, the return of those Spanish ships filled with riches from the new lands—gold, chocolate, and coffee—gave birth to my own country.

So in this way, traveling through Spain spoke to a history I share. And that very fact shifted my travel experience. I don’t travel through Europe much mostly because of the expense, not out of lack of interest, and Spain reinforced this for me—there is rich history and interesting foods and peoples in every pocket of the world, and as a storyteller, my job was to explore and find them.

Graffiti and bicycles in the Old Town area of Barcelona, Spain.

La Boqueria market in Barcelona, Spain.An array of fresh chopped fruit for sale in la Boqueria market in Barcelona, Spain.

Fresh fruits in Barcelona, Spain at la Boqueria market.

By walking the streets of Barcelona, I slowly shed my initial disorientation and I sunk into the travel experience; I began to enjoy Spain for what it was, not for how it compared to the sum of my past experiences. I pulled out my rusty Spanish, sampled the tapas, asked questions, and dug around for interesting answers. In the coming weeks, as I edit the last of my Spain photos, I will sprinkle the blog with stories and photos of the art, culture, and food I found most fascinating and inspiring. :)

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.

indian chai tea
An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India

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.

san pancho mexico
Snapshots from my last two weeks living in my tiny Mexican town.

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.

palm trees and sky
Palm trees and blue skies on the quiet streets

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Nepali Nuns from Arya Tara
Two young female monks (nuns) at the Arya Tara school just outside of Pharping, Nepal.

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.

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.

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.

A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan
A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan

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.

bus in india
Roof-top seats on a very, very full bus in India was the norm, rather than the exception.

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?

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

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.

akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

coffee
From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art!

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

Lee Akha Ama
Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.

I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

akha coffee beans
Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s Back Story

Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.

As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

akha ama coffee
Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.
The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Coffee Process

The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.

Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.
Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

A Little Sweetness… Hospitality and a Lesson in Burmese Candy

The thudding of a large motor caught our attention as we carefully navigated our bicycles down the pothole-strewn road. A glance to the right showed the slanting sun reflecting off an expansive sea of dry, off-white husks coating the yard of a house. I cocked my head to the side perplexed…the day before, Ana and I had noticed these houses with husk-like debris where grass should grow, and now, as then, I was unable to explain their curious presence in yards all over this region of Burma.

Jaggery shop, Inle lake
Sugarcane stalks line the ground of a small housing compound near Nyuang Shwe, on Inle Lake, Burma.

We cycled past the compound, the motor’s grinding peaked at the edge of the fence, then faded quickly as our bicycles whisked forward. Like yesterday, we were about to simply let the confusion sit in complacency and continue on our merry way, our legs pumping hard on the creaky, dual-gear bicycle that was clearly not built for sand and gravel roads.

Another moment passed and I was mentally kicking myself. Two days in a row we just drove right by…we’re in Burma, what’s the worst that could happen if we stop and ask to look around? This country has only been friendly. I felt like a poor teacher to my niece at that point, after all, the whole point is to teach her curiosity for the world and how to seek answers. So, was it fear of walking into a stranger’s house, or laziness preventing me from stopping and asking questions?

Maybe it was both.

Ox cart and driver, Inle Lake, Burma
An ox cart driver winds down the semi-paved road to Hot Springs near Inle Lake.

I called out to the group to stop for a pow-wow. Ana and I were bicycling back from the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, a mere 45 minute bike ride into the countryside around Inle Lake, with two other travelers we met that morning over breakfast at our guest house.

A quick look at the other adults, and I could see the men had been curious too. Without another word, Mike, a sweet British man traveling solo for the first time in his life, announced: “Alright then, let’s check it out!”

Moments later, the tentative smiles from two young children met us at the gates of their housing compound.

Burmese Children at Inle Lake
Two adorable kids play at their sugarcane factory near Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The kids hesitated before scattering toward the clanking contraption nearby, motioning for us to follow.

It looked like an open tractor engine sprawling across the packed dirt floor. Two men manned the front of the machine and with a flash of understanding I realized my feet were resting on a soft bed of dry sugar cane husks. The churning motor and huge metal gears spun the wheel and generated enough pressure to squeeze out every drop of sweet moisture from the sugarcane stalks.

Sugarcane juicing machine, Burma
The sugarcane press is a huge handmade machine, with long belts, an engine, and a pressing parts that squeeze the juice from the sugarcane stalks into a bucket for candy processing, near Inle Lake Burma.

We had chanced upon a candy factory!

And though it was a far cry different from stumbling into Willy Wonka’s world of wonders, the efficient teamwork and huge boiling vats of scented juice ignited our collective curiosity.

The men processing the stalks paid us no mind—and not out of unfriendliness, but rather out of affection for their limbs; the huge gurgling machine would not easily forgive a slip of the fingers.

Just as I noticed the children had disappeared, they burst out of the house nearby, with their mother walking at a clipped pace with a tray of tea and sweets toward our rag-tag group of five. She shyly motioned us over to the low, woven bamboo table and gently proffered cups of pale Chinese tea. As we stood and sipped, she took a moment to break up the thin, flat block of sugar candy. Spying Ana’s curious gaze on her every move, the mom (in an understanding all mom’s must have) handed over the first piece of sugarcane candy to Ana, carefully watching for Ana’s reaction as she bit into the hunk of pure sugar.

jaggery sugar candies, burma
Tea and jaggery candies at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

A grin split Ana’s face. Jaggery, or rather, sugar candies, are popular sweets all over Burma, and Ana relished the opportunity to once again have free reign over a bowl of pure sugar.

I nabbed a square myself (I’ll openly admit to my wicked sweet-tooth). With the hospitality now covered, the mother smiled and gestured to production line, letting us know it was okay to go investigate what they were doing.

With our gazes once again focused on the workers, the men spurred into action, and even though there wasn’t a lick of English spoken, each man patiently demonstrated the candy-making process at his station in the room.

Raw sugarcane stalks process through the pressing machine, and the once juicy stalks are left as dry husks while the liquid drains into a bucket.

Boiling sugarcane into candy, Burma
Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are being processed into sugar candies near Inle Lake, Burma.

A tube runs from the bucket, over the ground, and into nearby open vats where the murky green sugarcane juices collects for even more processing.

The greenish hued sugarcane juice is a popular snack all over Burma (and South Asia for that matter!) and the mom passed around a glass of warm, fresh juice for sampling. Traditionally, if you order sugarcane juice on Burma’s city streets, it’s served cold with lime and it’s a popular mid-morning snack. We sipped our juice warm and fresh from the press just to get a taste of the flavor just before it goes into processing (Ana’s verdict on the juice was not favorable, but hey, she’s just a kid, what does she know!).

Thickening sugarcane juice
Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are thickening so they can turn into Burmese sweets, Inle Lake, Burma.

After squeezing, the juice enters a long boiling process, where it is slowly transferred down the line, vat to vat, until it’s in the vat nearest to the hand-stoked fire and boiling rigorously. The entire process seems to take hours for one single batch, but we were lucky to catch the juice in its final stage, when it became a thick, brown syrup ready to be poured, spread, and dried.

The family spreads the very think sugarcane juice so it can dry into jaggery candies, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).Spreading the boiled sugarcane juice, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The final candy is very hard and difficult to break into small chunks, so before it’s packaged for sale in town they slice it into manageable cubes. Sugar candies are one of the more humble and popular Burmese desserts; we found small candy jars on most restaurant tables. The type of sugar candy on offer though, varies from region to region. Most often we found jaggery, a treat much like maple syrup candies in North America, but they are instead made from Toddy Palm sap. The Toddy Palm plant shaped rural life in Burma throughout history, and the jaggery treats are just one use for Toddy Palm. The palm is still today used for shade, medicines, cooking, and utensils…and because of the plant’s multiple uses, it’s a wise use of land as Burma expands into more agriculture and farming.

Rural areas favor these grainy, sugar-based sweets because they are made locally and thus are often flavored with other nearby fruits and flavors. And though our fresh sugarcane candies were delicious, Ana and I both fell in love with the sour plum candies in the Bagan region of Burma–the tart plum is a needed counter to the jaw-clenching sweetness of pure sugar and toddy palm juice!

sour plum candies burma
Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

As we nibbled the last of our sugar candy, it was about time to leave the family to their work, but I felt guilty that I had no real way to communicate our sincere thanks for such open hospitality.

Just as I slurped my last sip of Chinese tea, a young teenager came barreling into the yard. He cheerfully yelled out an English “hello” and announced he was a cousin to the family who was called to the candy compound from across town so he could answer our questions.

I was both baffled and overwhelmed. Tea and sweets were not enough, seeing us English speakers so curious about their work, the family sent for a relative who could communicate with us.

candy making shop burma
Our translator, a cousin to the candy makers, requested a cellphone photo before we left the shop near Inle Lake, Burma!

As the cousin started his line of questioning, so familiar to me at this point, every single person in the workshop gathered around for the translation.

“Where are you from?”

Grins broke out on their faces when they learned our group was from France, England, and America.

“How long in Myanmar?”

Just three weeks, but it’s been beautiful.

Then it was our turn to ask questions and the cousin explained the family structure. Mother and father to the two children nodded as the cousin pointed. That’s the uncle. A brother. Another cousin.

It was a family affair in the candy workshop and as the cousin’s English petered out, and the men drifted back to stoking the fire and stirring the vats, we gave profuse and generous thanks for the more than an hour we had spent in their hospitality.

Jaggery candy processing workshop
The jaggery sugar making hut near Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The children watched with curious owl-eyes as we hopped back onto our bicycles and sang out one last cheery thank you, “chezu tinbade!

Then we disappeared down the dirt road, the thudding motor fading quickly as we pedaled into the late afternoon.

I rode back to town in wonder of the warm and open hospitality that functioned as a rule throughout Burma, rather than the exception. What started as the simplest of bike rides ended up showing me a spirit of kindness and inherent friendliness that is not put on for the sake of tourism, or a mask for show.  The government’s forced isolation means that tourists are still a novelty, an occasional accent to a local’s life when a foreigner rides a bit off the path. In Burma, the reward for journeying down the harder road (and let me assure you an hour down a questionably paved road is tough!) was always met with smiles and stories.