A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Russia: Upending Cultural Assumptions

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

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

Visiting Russia: My Why

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

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

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

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

And I found the conference both fascinating and exceedingly normal.

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring St. Petersburg: The Parts I Loved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upending Assumptions: My Travel Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I am charmed by Russia.

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

plaza real bareclona

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Barcelona: Finding Home

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

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

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

I just needed space.

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

Plaça Reial in Barcelona

Searching for Home

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

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

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

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hanging at Hierve El Agua

flame tree in bloom

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

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

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

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

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

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

Viewpoint in the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago 12.5 km sign

End of the Camino de Santiago

Plaça Reial

Barcelona Parc de la Ciutadella

Finding a Home

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t abort ship.

Barceloneta architecture

Pretty buildings in Barceloneta

Barcelona Cathedral

views of barceloneta

window view from my house in Barcelona

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

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

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

friends from BridgesandBalloons.com

Barcelona

Gelato on a sunny day

Sunday brunch in style!

It’s fun. Better yet, it feels right.

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

Because I live here now.

I live in Barcelona.

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

Hierve el Agua, Mexico

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Mexico: Oaxacan Life

Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.

Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
Oaxaca, the land of heirloom corn and the heart of Mexican cuisine.

Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.

All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.

On Local Grassroots Tourism

Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.

microfinance in Mexico
This En Via borrower used her loan to bulk buy wool and dye for her weaving business making rugs.

I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.

Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?

En Via microfinance, Oaxaca
A line of carefully embroidered aprons in San Miguel del Valle, a rural town about an hour and a half outside of Oaxaca City.
microfinance volunteering in mexico
On my En Via tour, we visited a seamstress in San Miguel de Valle. She shared her plans for her business, as well as how her embroidery has shifted to meet a growing trend of more elaborate apron designs.

On Work & A Little Adrift

For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.

There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.

Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.

To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.

oaxacan hot chocolate
Confession: in lieu of things to do, I go hunt down some freshly frothed Oaxacan-style hot chocolate. I read. I drink. It’s all very delicious (the free time and the chocolate).

On Current Travels

Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.

My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.

Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca
Found a pair of flipflops on the edge of these pretty pools of water. I think the owner was won over by the beauty and forgot them in the excitement.
Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
Fun with reflections in the mineral-laden waters at Hierve el Agua. The pretty pools of water seem to just fall over the cliff side into the surrounding mountains. These pools of water are part of larger formations that resemble rock waterfalls. The name, Hierve el Agua, translates to “the water boils,” and this site pops against the muted blue and green mountainside. Small springs feed the pools of water. The water is full of calcium carbonate and minerals, causing cool, variegated pools of green and turquoise. It’s all swimmable and it’s a like a nature-made infinity pool with views over the mountains.
The boiling waterfalls of Hierve el Agua
The waterfalls appear frozen against the mountains, with just trickles of water falling down the white “falls.”
Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
The sprawling ruins of Monte Albán outside of Oaxaca City. This was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, about 500 BC. This pre-Columbian archaeological site sits some 6,400 ft (nearly 2,000 meters) above sea level. It’s surrounded by the arid mountains and cool dry air. And it’s scorchingly hot. I love the scale of this site. Tiny people dwarfed by the large pyramids then dwarfed by the vast mountain range.
Zocalo Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City’s zócalo bustles with activity in the late afternoon. On the weekend it’s packed to the gills, with music, bands, dancing, buskers, vendors, and people all enjoying the cool spring evenings.

On What’s Next

I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.

For now, this spring I’ll continue creating ALA responsible travel guides. If you’re keen to keep updated on where I am specifically at any given moment, I am much better about updating this “Now” page, and I update Instagram a lot too.

I welcome your thoughts and emails. What is spring looking like for you?

rwanda-lake-kivu

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Rwanda and a Final Goodbye

I pen this now from a coffee shop at Nairobi International Airport, several hours out from the flight that will take me home, back to the United States and into a new journey over the summer months as I attend weddings, speak at conferences, and visit old friends.

My website was blocked these past weeks as I traveled through Rwanda, and so, apologies for the gap in dispatches—this is the last I will write from Africa.

I am ready to leave.

This is not always the case as I board a homeward bound flight, but while I loved much of my time in Africa, the travel grows weary on me these past few weeks—I added another bout with serious traveler’s sickness to my already long running list—and I am looking forward to a bit of down time before planning some travels this fall. Several years ago I penned a piece about going home called a A Little Love Letter… On Travel and Leave-Takings. It’s still a favorite of mine, and much of that still holds true on this leave-taking. Friends have had babies these past few weeks, other friends planned weddings this month and I look forward to attending, and too, my niece Ana is begging for me to return and scoop her up for some sort of adventure—even a stateside adventure is “acceptable if necessary” according to her.

Fun finds at the morning market. The baskets full of beans and local veggies made for a pretty arrangement and made wandering Kampala’s small markets are the more fun.

And so, I write these thoughts with less nostalgia than I would have guessed going into a long-haul flight taking me back to America. Less nostalgia, but no less appreciation and gratitude for the experiences afforded to me these past four months. There are countless new friendships that shaped my time on the continent, and some of the most incredible wildlife experiences our planet can afford. It’s been good. And so, onward with the final dispatch covering a bit about Rwanda these past few weeks, as well as some of my travel plans and the cities I’ll visit throughout the summer months if you’re keen to meet up!

On Traveling Through Rwanda

Rwanda caught me by surprise. Many nations have a nickname, and as I passed from Uganda, the “Pearl of Africa” into Rwanda, the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” I was unsure of nature of the country I would find on the other side of this new border crossing. The diversity of each country in East Africa has surprised me, though they share borders (some borders that seem quite fluid if you look far enough into the past), the modern versions of these countries have strong national identities and cultures unique unto themselves. Rwanda is no exception, and the visible cues that I had switched countries were as noticeable as the change in demeanor.

Women in Rwanda head home at the end of the day, walking up a tall hill with their goods.

The sweeping beauty of the landscape is the first sign you’ve entered a new country. Though Uganda shares topography with Rwanda, Rwanda’s fierce dedication to keeping up appearances manifests as a countryside free of plastics blighting the hills and gutters. My bus rocketed through the countryside at sickening pace, taking turns I was sure would tip us, and the cleanliness of each new village we whizzed past struck me as different. Women walked the roadsides with their goods balanced on their heads, children snapped to attention, hollering “mzungu” at the top of their lungs and waving with unbridled enthusiasm.

The beauty here struck me so strongly, perhaps, because of the country’s past. Beyond the fact that you can track gorillas in the wild here (which I did not, though I did see monkeys in one of the other forests), the country is most notable in the global consciousness for the horrific genocide back in 1994 that took the lives of roughly a million people in the span of just 100 days. Over the past three weeks I zigzagged my way across the country from the gorgeous Lake Kivu, which forms a partial border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the high peaks near Virunga National Park, home to several extinct (and active if you’re on the DRC side) volcanoes.

Throughout, Rwanda’s beauty was staggering. Terraced hillsides sidle up against lush forests containing some of the richest biodiversity in Africa.

Storms rode in from the east with rains and spectacular lightning as the sun set over Lake Kivu with layers of misty mountains far into the horizon.

On Traveling with Friends

These past three weeks were also special in that I threw off my solo travel mantel and teamed up with the loveliest blogging couple I know, Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market. When we realized we would both pass through Uganda the same week, and could then easily align our Africa travels, I jumped at the chance to tag along—and tag along is exactly what I did since Audrey is an amazing travel planner and plotted out the important parts of our joint travels, allowing me to transition into “blindly accept and follow” mode for several weeks.

We talked over drinks in Jinja, Uganda, laughed as the wind whipped our faces on our tour of Kampala via motorbikes, colloquially known as boda-bodas, and survived an eleven hour mostly food-less bus ride into Rwanda. We headed straight to the gorgeous blue waters of Lake Kivu, where a friend of mine from Thailand (who is now working in South Sudan) joined our motley crew.

To say that having friends here was a lovely way to end this trip is an understatement.

Not a picture of my friends, though we did goof around like monkeys at times. This family of Vervet monkeys posed for me in the trees near Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park.

On Future Travels

As always, I have no clue where my next plans will take me—I dream of visiting Bangladesh and exploring more of India. Ethiopia was a purposeful oversight on this trip as I would love to dedicate an entire month to exploring the deep history there. Or, as always, the Spanish-speaking regions of the world beckon as a potential home-base for a more grounded six months exploring a region.

What I do know though, is that I will be in Los Angeles next week for a wedding, then home to Florida for another wedding. July kicks off in Portland, Oregon for the WDS conference, and I’ll head to Seattle just after that for a couple of weeks. I am speaking at a conference in Atlanta late July, then on to NYC for the beginning of August. If meet ups in any of those places sound good, leave a comment or reach out on the Facebook page to let me know!

As always, thanks for the support these past months!

~S

Kendwa beach in Zanzibar

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: From Sand to Safari

The sky is lit with fiery fingers of color, the dense humidity and the clouds pulling the saffron flames across the sky. Zanzibar does not disappoint. I arrived last week in the wake of my safari, I needed a base for two weeks to work on a few new assignments and all signs (and recs from readers) pointed here as the best option in the region. Thanks, it’s beautiful.

Kendwa beach in Zanzibar
There is just something meditative and beautiful about sailboats on the turquoise-blue waters off the coast of Zanzibar.

On Safari: Spotting the Big Five

My week, though, started in the north of Tanzania, and the prevailing chain of conversation centered on the wildlife and Africa’s Big 5 animals. Travelers suss out which national parks everyone visited and what they saw, all in the hopes of finding the elusive faces of some of the most magnificent animals on the planet.

As a lone traveler, I was afraid that traveling off-season was a bad idea. Not wanting a package tour of the region, I had the unenvious task of finding a group willing to let me tag along, otherwise the cost of the safari would be too steep.

Lady Luck was feeling friendly this month—and quite frankly that was a welcome respite after the spate of bad luck last month—with the perfect timing for me to join a group of four Danes visiting in a college field-work program. I donned my wide-brimmed hat and threw my lot in with them for the four days and three nights of safari-ing.

On the road between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serenteti

Majestic baobab trees dominated Tarangire, the tree bark worn away from the park’s many elephants satisfying their itches on the tree trunks throughout the park.

Cheetahs and leopards stalked through the tall grass of the Serengeti, their bodies sleek and fit from mornings spent hunting the thousands of impalas and gazelles grazing the plains.

Giraffe, graceful and gorgeous, tottered into our paths, casually munching from trees both tall and short.

Lions rested in the shade of our vehicle, and buffalo stood stoic and unimpressed.

The safari was incredible and awesome in the true sense of both words. April is off-season and we shared the park with just a handful of other safari vehicles, all willing to brave the occasional rain showers for the chance to sight these beautiful animals in the wild. With 2000 photos to process, it took a while but I have a proper photo essay of my time in Tanzania’s wilds.

On safari at the Ngorongoro Crater

A rich and complex history in Zanzibar

These two weeks in Zanzibar are a study in the blending of cultures and religions as history chose to throw a wide mix of influence on this tiny island in the Indian Ocean over the past 100 years. The Arab slave trade converged on the island, with the historic Stone Town as a primary staging ground. Also making an appearance in the island’s history were the Portuguese, British, Persians, and Indians, among others. The result is a chaotic mix of narrow, intricate corridors, mosques jostling with buildings of British and Arab architecture, and giant wooden doors that will forever stand out as my strongest memory of Stone Town.

In present-day, the island is an eclectic mix that has created a fierce island pride native Zanzibari. Though they are Tanzanian by passport, rumblings around the island insist on a need to separate from the mainland and take back their farms, trade, and island identity.

Conversations hum with the laid-back cadence native to island life anywhere in the world, and locals are just as likely to share a cheery greeting as they are to pull up a chair and sit for a chat. A week into my time here and I have yet to find a resident who doesn’t smile with pride and ask, as they always do, “So you like Zanzibar?” A question for which there is but one answer they expect.

“Oh yes, you live in paradise,” I always reply.

Next Steps

I am traveling back to Kenya this weekend to visit a cultural project, the Maji Moto Masaai camp, which came highly recommended. Scarce internet means I haven’t yet compiled my planned guides to local projects along the way, but if you’re looking for an ethical safari or Kilimanjaro trekking company on a mid-range budget, TPK Expeditions comes highly recommended. It’s operated by a Tanzanian and Canadian women duo committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving opportunities furthering their education.

Speaking of Kilimanjaro, I am saving the climb—the highest peak in Africa—to trek with my dad. Traveling through Panama last summer, my dad mentioned he would love to start retirement by climbing Kili. I’m holding him to it and hopefully in the next few years we will make it happen!

More soon,

~S

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: The Road Trip

Leaving for AfricaIt’s been a whirlwind first week here in Africa; after 40 hours in transit from Washington, DC to South Africa, a fellow travel blogger—and friend—met me with a smiling face and a plan at the Johannesburg airport. When we first noticed our travel plans matched up we decided to team up for a South African road trip before I head out solo.

These next few months in Africa are a new adventure for me as I head overland in search of grassroots, local-level enterprises, so this marks the first dispatch in a new weekly series on the site that will share some of the quick impressions, smaller anecdotes, and updates on my route. I often overlook the details in the stories I craft, but emails over the years indicate that these missing nitty-gritties baffle some readers. In a story, it appears as though I magically appear in a new place. The reality is often hours of bus rides, plane flights, rough hotels, endless negotiations for vegetarian food, and a lot of days spent getting lost and asking many questions (which already baffles Gary—I am forever stopping random strangers and asking for help!).

Road Tripping South Africa (and Lesotho)

I finished my first week on the continent of Africa. First impression: It’s enormous. I over-estimated my ability to travel north in a mere four months. Africa looks large on the map, but the reality on the ground makes it ever the more evident. And a roadtrip? Well, it drove home the point even more so.

The initial plan was to go overland up through Africa toward Kenya until June, but that seems less likely now that I’ve seen that our 20+ hours of drive time this past week took us through hours of unpopulated, shrubby flatlands broken up by an occasional hill or a massive field of sunflowers. And we haven’t even crossed half of South Africa. Vast, anonymous distances separate the larger cities; if you’ve ever driven across Texas for 10+ hours, this is akin to that. It just never ends.

A welcomed break in the monotony came from a side-trip to the Kingdom of Lesotho, a separate, landlocked country lying like a pebble tossed on a map of South Africa. The landscape erupted from the red plains and this tiny country is mountainous and culturally very different. Few white South Africans seem to live there, and shepherds wearing blankets and traditional hats tended their sheep along the roadside. After hours of seeing few people, driving into Maseru, the capital, was an explosion of lively food vendors, chaotic streets, shouted “hellos” followed by vigorous waving, and rapid chatter in Sesotho.

We spent just a few hours driving through and lunching in Lesotho; one day I’d like to return and explore more of the mountain towns—our micro car doesn’t have the engine power to make it there this trip.

Cape Agulhas

Visiting Victoria Falls

I jumped ahead though, because before driving south from Johannesburg, we caught a flight to Zimbabwe and spent a weekend exploring Victoria Falls, which straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Initial impression of Zimbabwe: expensive, easy and friendly. Outside of Vic Falls, I hear the prices are more on par with other regions of Africa, but we visited in the off-season and only a few, expensive restaurants were open this time of year. Another thing that surprised me, and I may be naïve, but English is truly a default language in this region of Africa and I loved having the ability to chat and ask heaps of  questions. Lots of readers fear the language barrier, but here, as with other places, it’s often a non-issue.

Rainbows over Victoria Falls in January when the Zambezi River is full.

The bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe

Our focus was visiting the falls, which are spectacular. I could wax poetic over the Victoria Falls, but the word “spectacular” sums it up nicely. I’ve never visited any of the other major waterfalls in the world, neither Niagara Falls nor Iguazu Falls, but even so, this waterfall rates.

Vic Falls is also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates as “The Smoke that Thunders,” a very fitting name if you visit in the wet season when you’ll witness the largest falling sheet of water in the world as the Zambezi River pours through the gorges.

One thing of note, and if I had done my research perhaps I would’ve known, is that this is the rainy season for Victoria Falls.  So, while the Zambezi River is gorgeous and full, much of the falls were completely obscured by the dense mists created by the gushing water. Actually, mist is a bit of a misnomer, at points it was as if we were walking through a full, mid-summer Florida rainstorm as gusting winds lifted the water from the gorge and into the viewing areas. There are a few things, like rafting and swimming in the river, I would have liked to have done, but opted not to this time around—I’ll be back in dry season one day!

Also, we visited both sides of the falls, which meant a quick border crossing for the afternoon. And while Zimbabwe claims most of the falls viewing areas, both sides are worth a visit because Zambia offers gorgeous viewpoints of the falls from a bit further back. If you’re in the region, I’d suggest doing both.

victoria-falls-zambia
Called “The Smoke that Thunders” in the local dialects, the force of the water hitting the gorge creates a think mist around the falls.

What’s Next

This week Gary and I finish our drive down the coast. Although we’ve been moving quickly, we also stop at each and every UNESCO World Heritage site in South Africa — Gary’s goal is to visit every sight in the world. We will end our road-trip in Cape Town, with a stop at Robben Island, the Cape of Good Hope (and Cape Agulhas where I’ll reach the southernmost tip of Africa!), and topping it off with a visit to the iconic Table Mountain. Then, I fly solo for the next few months as I move north; I have a lead on a Cheetah Conservation Center outside of Cape Town I plan to check out, and some readers shared projects in Namibia as well—I’ll share more details as I start researching these grassroots projects in the region.

More soon, I have a photo essay of Victoria Falls coming this week!

Antigua, Guatemala

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Guatemala: Prepping for Easter Madness

The buzz throughout the city is infectious on the Wednesday before Easter. Although Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations don’t “officially” kick off until the morning of Holy Thursday, the colorfully picturesque town of Antigua, Guatemala has been milking this holiday for the past two weeks—I’ve seen countless early Semana Santa processions and mini-carpets as offerings. I’m told these are just a tiny preview of what is to come, however.  Antiguans may start the celebrations early, actual true madness descends on Wednesday, once tourists flood into Antigua, and family members of locals come the city as well to join together in the festivities.

Antigua is like a city taken right out of Disney world—the buildings maintain a uniform size, color-scheme that honor the beautiful baroque colonial architecture that’s weathered from history and harken’s back to a time of strong Spanish influence hundreds of years ago. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means Antigua can never stray too far from just precisely and exactly what it looks like right now—which is a tiny slice of colorful, colonial Spain.

Streets of Antigua, Guatemala

If the town looks a bit Disney-fied under the best of circumstances (which it does . . . it’s just so pristine and out of place compared to other Guatemalan cities), once Semana Santa kicks off this tiny eight-block-by-eight-block city swells in size to accommodate the tourists and Guatemalans from all over the country who overwhelm the city.

I’ve been looking forward to Semana Santa in Antigua for quite some time now—photos of the amazing sawdust carpets, the parades of mourning that reenact the last days of Christ, it’s all one of those experiences that may only come once in a lifetime. So I was fully ready to brave the crowds and pickpockets (unfortunately they’re here and several backpackers had their purses razored because they weren’t cautious), to experience one of the largest Semana Santa celebrations this side of Atlantic (I hear that only Seville, Spain has larger Holy Week festivities!).

Semana Santa in Antigua was such a unique experience that I documented it ruthlessly in photos, stories and videos. The city is perhaps best known for the amazingly detailed alfombras, or carpets, that residents spend dozens of hours creating before the processions destroy them in a matter of minutes. But that’s just one part of it. The parades and marches strike melancholy in your heart as the dirges of the musicians moan through the air on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The town literally reenacts Christ’s last days and a somber note falls over the city for days as Romans march through the streets condemning Christ to death, and processions of mourners take to the streets to follow the elaborate floats. All of this in the lead up to Easter Sunday, when the rejoicing and joy, paired with dinner and celebrations make for a contrast to the days spent in mourning. Never before have I seen an even so consume an entire city.

On top of all of that, the food and people were just amazing this week. In the coming week, I plan to share an epic post on the fascinating processions and carpets of Semana Santa in . . . Antigua style!

Guatemala Travel Guide

A free download of everything I learned from backpacking across Guatemala. It’s one of top three favorite countries in the world—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you travel to Guatemala!  

Guatemalan women

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Guatemala: First Impressions & Travel Plans

Another week down for my Central America trip. I am beyond content. I love Guatemala.

I’ll say it again. I love my time in Guatemala so far.

The country is a fascinating mix of colors on every surface. It’s not just the colonial buildings that shine in a rainbow of colors. It’s the colorful culture, the beautiful artisan work. It makes me smile to see all of the happily random pairings at every market. Hand-woven skirts stand out in brilliant blues, then they layer that piece with delicate green lace. But it’s not done. The local women top that beautiful traditional dress with chunky red beaded jewelry. It’s been so interesting. I’m loving it so much, I’m staying. It’s too good to move on as I had planned. That’s one of the reasons I kept everything so flexible on the plans. I love Guate, so I’m staying.

Guatemalan women in traditioanal dress

Updates on the Blog

Fun things are happening on the backend. A beautiful indie guidebook for Nepal asked me for a contribution. They loved my Vipassana meditation story and asked me to share in their anthology of travel stories about Nepal. I’ll share more as this develops.

I have been working on the A Little Adrift resources. I know that a lot of work goes into planning a round the world trip, so my time in Central America is spend not only exploring and sharing stories, but I am working to document the planning process that went into my RTW trip. This page on the site will collect all that advice and information, with more added every week.

Travel Updates & Where I’m Going Next

A major Guatemalan festival is coming up. Semana Santa is holy week for the Christians in the world. And Semana Santa is celebrated throughout Spanish speaking countries. It takes place the week before Easter; it runs from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday. They offer up different ways of celebrating Easter in various countries; Spain has its own version, Mexico its own. And Guatemala, however, is generally regarded as one of the best. They have beautiful celebrations, reenactments of the Holy Week, parades, carpets of flowers and sand. It’s like a neverending feast of options. I am psyched! You can count on me sharing more posts from Guatemala’s Semana Santa celebrations.

I have no firm timeline for backpacking Guatemala. I had planned to stay just a couple of weeks. I love it so much though that I think I might spend the bulk of my three months in Guate. I still want to obtain my advanced divers certification in Honduras, so I have a rough plan to head that way after a month or two here. I’m winging it!

Wrapping Up

I so appreciate the support these past weeks, months, and really since the beginning of the trip. As I move down Central America solo, it’s nice to have the support of the travel community, as well as my friends. I so appreciate the comments you leave and the information you share with me. It’s only through this cumulative effort that I’ve had such a good run so far. Mexico was fun and a perfect gateway to Cuba. Belize had some iffy moments, but I am back in the travel groove and really just loving the range of activities, the culture, and the vibe here in Guatemala.