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

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

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

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

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

arashiyama bamboo forest

Shukkei-en Garden hiroshima

girls posing selfie in Kamakura

Kofuku-ji temple

Shibuya, Tokyo

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

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

shibuya japan

Zojo-ji Temple & Tokyo Tower

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

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

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

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

Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Temple in the background

views from top of tokyo tower tokyo tower in japan

tokyo cityscape from tokyo tower

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

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

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

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

Meiji Shrine religious hand washing

Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

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

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

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

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

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

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Buddha, Kamakura

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

Kōtoku-in temple giant Buddha

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

Temple and Beaches of Kamakura

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

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

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

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

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

kamakura beach with red tide algae

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

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

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

Kiyomizu-dera kyoto

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

The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera

Views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Around Kyoto, Japan

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

old building in Kyoto

bamboo forest Kōdai-ji temple kyoto Kōdai-ji bamboo

Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts

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

the Path of Philosophy kyoto Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

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

Golden Temple, Kyoto

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

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

Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

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

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

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

伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha

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

garden Fushimi Inari Shrine

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

The Gardens of Nara, Japan

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

Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Isuien Garden in Nara japan Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Okochi-Sanso Villa in the Arashiyama District

Isuien Garden in Nara japan The gardens of Japan.

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

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

Todai-ji

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

Around Nara

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

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

nara bowing deer

bowing deer Nara, japan Bowing deer of Nara nara japan

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Nigatsu-dō temple  sunset Kofuku-ji Temple

park in nara  Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Eating All the Things

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

hiroshima style okonomiyaki

Seaweed and spinach, yum!

Hiroshima Shrine

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

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

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

Miyajima Island & Floating Torii

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

bowing deer miyajima island

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

cable car on miyajima island

views from Mt. Misen Mt. Misen miyajima

tide out on Itsukushima shrine

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

Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island


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

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

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

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

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

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

maasai experience kenya women in shukas

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

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

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

review of Salaton's Maji Moto Culutral Camp in Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

campfire songs with the Maasai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

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

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

The lake near Maji Moto, Kenya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

eliminating FGM among the Maasai

Meeri

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

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

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

A rock outcropping near Maji Moto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

roasting goat over a campfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

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

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

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

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

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

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

Temple luang prabang laos

A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

The pace of life in Luang Prabang, Laos is so very charming. Charming is the only one-word description I can come up with for this low-slung city with wide streets (unnatural for much of Southeast Asia), French inspired post-colonial architecture, monks clad in sunny saffron robes, and a humming buzz of relaxed tourism. I wrote earlier about the changes three years and more tourism brought upon this sweet, sleepy country set between Vietnam and Thailand, but what cannot change in the intervening years between my visits,  is the history. Laos was the first travel destination I took my niece Ana to see once we left our apartment in Chiang Mai, and beyond the elephants, the river, and the Laotians, I really wanted her to experience a relaxed week enjoying the various elements of Luang Prabang.

A slow morning on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos
Hours before the night market clogs the main tourist street in Luang Prabang, Vat Ho Pha Bang shines against the ultramarine sky and purple bougainvillea within the pristine National Museum complex. The city retains a rural and small-town feel despite it’s place in history as a royal capital in the 8th century, and an active trading hub on the Silk Road for many succeeding centuries. Now, it’s a UNESCO world heritage city, but no longer the capital of Laos, which I think is a very key reason the city has remained small despite globalism and tourism.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on this trip Ana and I spent simple days watching, observing, and talking about history and how it may have shaped the town, what it might have felt like when Laotian kings walked the streets. I find myself slowing down a lot more with Ana in tow, instead of spending the evenings with a beer at the bowling alley (hugely popular with the backpackers in the city back in 2009), we found a coffee shop on the river. The shop’s well-worn cushions and knee-high, woven bamboo tables were cozy and comfortable as we sipped our tart, icy lime drinks. We people watched for a bit while the boats hummed on the river below, then wrote in our journals of the day’s sights, me encouraging Ana to draw pictures, note specific moments and feelings.

I realized as we sat there that I too rarely reflect on my travels offline and via a handwritten journal. I documented my round the world trip in a journal, but that ended somewhere along the way. Ana was quick to point out that I was a hypocrite for making her document her personal thoughts and journey when my fingers jetting over the keyboard with a clatter rather than the soft hiss of putting pen to paper. I know that I think best on paper, but I am so caught up in what I still need to do-plan-work on that I rarely step away from the computer without conscious effort.

And so, I made more of an effort to unplug, I mostly stopped blogging for a bit and since Ana and I found ourselves in Luang Prabang for several extra days, I found I still loved visiting this pretty little city. We had a beautiful guesthouse with a friendly proprietress who spoke English, so I had Ana read our Laos guidebook and pick interesting activities, then ask for advice from our guesthouse owner. And even three years later, I still love the temples, smiles, and food. The people, monks, and tourists. All these combine into a city with charm, heritage, and personality that I knew I loved, but needed a reminder to stop and enjoy.

A steaming pot of soup for a traditional breakfast in Luang Prabang, Laos
Tiny stools jut onto the sidewalks in the misty hours of dawn as locals sip a steaming soup adorned with herbs and spices before they took their tuk-tuks and mottos for a full day of work. Though western breakfast shops bracketed this tiny soup-stand with croissants and lattes, it was just as easy to hunker down with the locals, point and smile at the soup, and within minutes be happily slurping down fragrant broth and noodles.
Early morning fruit shake stands set up in Luang Prabang, Laos
My breakfast was complete only after purchasing a 5,000 kip (about 60 cent) fruit shake from the corner stalls displaying colorful cups of pre-chopped mixed fruit ready blend into a condensed milk, ice, and fruit concoction that defies logic on its tastiness! Smoothies are my go-to snack in Southeast Asia, and as we had our shake blended, numerous mottos zipped up to the stand to also grab a blended beverage before zooming on their way!
Excited hellos from the children in Luang Prabang, Laos
With some poppy traditional music blaring from the truck speakers, these kids were happily clapping, singing, and shouting hello. I suspect this was a parade of sorts, or class trip perhaps, since several truck-beds passed by in the late morning with the cheery children, all of whom were giddy with excitement to wave to us as we paused and watched them gently roll down the road, the driver careful not to jolt the truck too much!
This cute little girl found her mom's high heels! Luang Prabang, Laos
With a freedom distinctly uncommon in the United States, this little girl independently toddled down the street on her mother’s high heels, stopping at nearby vendors, grabbing her morning snacks and hugs before heading back to the shop where her mother sold fair-trade crafts and scarves.
An elderly man stokes and tends the breakfast fires in Luang Prabang, Laos.
One of the things I love about Luang Prabang are the family compounds that also act as guesthouses. In many cases, each guesthouse is also the home for several generations of Laotians. This grandfather on my street stoked the early morning fires, cooked breakfast and minded his grandchildren while the middle generation took care of us tourists, cleaned the guest rooms, and generally ran the business; every member of the family feeling useful and needed to balance the dynamics.
A tasty array of vegetarian street eats in Luang Prabang, Laos
The night market walking street comes alive with long buffets of food. Vegetarian buffets were present even back in 2009, and for just over a dollar US we piled our bowl with a variety of flavorful vegetarian dishes. Nearby skewers of meat appeased the omnivores (including Ana), and buckets of cold drinks, snacks and treats were all sold with the quiet soft-sell and placid smiles from vendors.
Grilled fresh fish from the river in Luang Prabang, Laos
Freshly grilled fish was easy to find, and while not something I eat, it fascinates me to see the fully recognizable fish skewered and prettily presented for eating. I find food in the US is often purposely packaged to disassociate itself from the animal it actually is, while  culturally in Asia, they often consume and enjoy nearly every part of the animal!
A morning coffee shake in Luang Prabang, Laos
After just three mornings of a habitual coffee to start my day, the vendor would smile and wave as I approached. On the fourth day, he beat me to the punchline and happily parroted out my precise coffee order, remembering my explicit instructions “noooooo sugar,” which pegs me as so un-Asian since they adore adding condensed milk and sugar syrup to just about every single drink they serve.
A tuk-tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos
The calls for service from the tuk-tuk drivers pelt out into the day like a woodpecker making his home in a new tree. Every time we passed one of these shared taxis, the driver was quick to list out all the possible tourist activities for the day, and though it could have gotten annoying, I rather like the consistency of their chant, quite unchanged from the one I heard recited several years ago on the very same street corner.
Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos.
Colorful paper fans glowed from the rattan mats lining sidewalks of Luang Prabang’s night market. The bright pigments do a fantastic job of drawing the tourists closer to the variety of wares. Like bees to a brightly colored flower, my niece and I followed the magnetizing draw of crafts and conversation humming on the city’s crowded street and dug through the kitsch to find quirky coins and beads for Ana to make into bracelets.
The sprawling city and countryside around the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos at sunset from Mount Phousi.
From Mount Phousi, the highest hill in the center of Luang Prabang, Ana and I watch the sunset over the hills and rivers encircling the world heritage city center. We visited in late November, just as the region’s rainy season finished, and the reward was a landscapes so verdant it could inspire poetry in those more inclined to flowery words than myself. Low-slung streets, shining golden temples, tall palms and quiet river waters make this city an enduring riddle that seems both supremely touristy and yet unchanged throughout the past hundreds of years since construction of the first temple. The city has seen much history, but is so humble.

I find myself oddly drawn here, and Ana asked me if I wanted to maybe live in Luang Prabang, to become an occasional expat in the city I waxed poetic about even before we arrived. I surprised her by answering “no.” No, I don’t want to live in Luang Prabang. I love the lazy sunsets enjoyed at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. I love the ability to spend several days biking around the streets, eating a crusty warm baguette (a remnant of the French influence), and visiting temples and waterfalls. The city is compelling, but no, I don’t actually want to live there, a visit every few years is enough, for now.

Water's Impact on Our Lives

A Little Photoessay… Water Runs Through Every Place I’ve Visited

Water runs through all of us, and all over the world. It’s impossible to fully grasp the importance of water on our lives. In honor of the importance of water, I offer up this photo essay on the importance of water to my travels. It’s a piece that looks at the most beautiful places I have visited. The people affected by water and how it impacts their.

Call it an ode to water.

World Water Facts

  • We drink between 2-3 litres of water per day, but we use 3,000 litres per day when considering water used in food production.
  • Meat production is a huge culprit for hidden water waste. 1 kilogram of beef takes 15,000 litres.
  • Reducing the amount of food you waste and throw away is one of the easier ways to reduce your water consumption.
Two women use their longyi to protect their modesty as they bath on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Cleansing water: two women on Inle Lake in Myanmar bath right on the canal thoroughfare, taking not only food from the river, but the mechanics of daily life as well.
Small Mountain Hut
Mountain Waters: High in the Himalayan Mountain range, the clear, gushing streams harness energy, help process foods, and offer life to the communities living off the land in rural parts of Nepal.
Boy Swimming and fishing
Life-giving water: a Tharu boy from southern Nepal fishes for food, or maybe just for fun, in the placid river.
On the road in Croatia
Stark Waters: The dry, barren earth and gray mountain range stand in contrast to the deep river I viewed out my bus window when making my way through rural Croatia.
monk temple luang prabang, loas
Convenient water: glancing over the low wall around the temple compound, I spotted this young monk filling buckets as monks cleaned and washed all the white temple walls.
Connor Pass, Dingle, Ireland
Epic Waters: Clouds shadows create a vast, open and almost lonely space from Connor Pass, on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. The turbulent Atlantic waters in the distant are a severe contrast to the serene valley and peaceful lakes.
Sikh Holy Golden Temple
Sacred Water: The Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple, houses the most holy text in Sikhism. The temple complex and water dominate the center of Amritsar, India. All religions are welcome to come worship God in the temple, and many people take a dip in the shallow, cleansing waters around the holy temple.
The Harbor
Busy Water: Sydney Harbor in Australia bustles with activity as boats, both large and small, zip right by the Sydney Opera House. The boats are likely rushing to avoid the storm that rolled in 10 minutes later and let leash a torrential downpour of rain.
That's my Nessie face!
Mythical Waters: Pretending I am Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, I strike a ridiculous pose in Fort Augustus, Scotland. Part of me secretly hoped I’d see Nessie in this photo when I looked at the image ;-)
The Dead Sea from Jordan
Salty Water: The Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on earth. Life cannot flourish in the water and when standing on the shores, earth’s lowest spot on land, pretty white salt crystals cover the rocks and tint the water an impossible shade of aqua-green as it laps at the knobby rock surface.
View along the way!
Misty Water: Morning dew sits over the tree canopy in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Northern Laos, the sun is just rising and hasn’t yet burned off the water so the forest looks mystical, like the setting for a fairy tale.
Snorkelers in Key West, Florida
Fun Water: Snorkelers in Key West Florida float over the shallow reefs, seeking out coral fans and colorful reef fish in the variegated coastal waters.
12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia.
Pretty Waters: Australia’s Great Ocean Road is a slowly changing seascape of beauty. As the strong Southern Ocean waves erode the limestone stacks, the views  will continuously change as time passes; my pretty views back in 2009 will be long forgotten by 2509.
Stari Most at Sunset
Historical Water: The Neretva river flowing under Stari Most, a bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has witnessed history and tragedy unfold. Stari Most stood in Mostar for 427 years before it was bombed and destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War in the early 1990s. After the war ended, UNESCO and international organizations worked with the government to accurately build and reconstruct the bridge that stands today.
Soup in China!
Food & Water = Life. Without water, we have no food.

It wasn’t until I left the confines of the United States that I began to witness the wealth and resource disparity present on our planet. And by disparities, I mean disparities in all terms of wealth. After traveling, I began to appreciate my education more because I saw how hard so many others worked for theirs. My food was plentiful, and I never knew hunger. I had a shower every night, and clean tap water flowing out of my faucet. I spent summers running through my sprinklers, then cooling off with a glass of lemonade flavored Kool-Aid.

I never knew how much I had at my disposal. Water is a shared resource, and though renewable, clean water is increasingly taxed out by our usage.

Thank you for reading this far about the waters I’ve seen throughout my years of traveling. As a part of World Water Day 2012, I’d like to end by noting that the two easiest ways to help the global water shortages are to conserve water usage and eliminate food waste. Ana and I are working on being particularly conscious of our food and water use this week as we consider how our personal choices affect the planet as a whole :)

Cheers,

~S

A Little Review… The Perfect Travel Camera, My Panasonic Lumix

Since I first left to travel in 2008, my camera gear used to capture images all over the world has changed quite a bit. In that first year, I left with a trusty Canon point-and-shoot camera. That worked really well. But over time I switched to the mirrorless, micro four-thirds camera systems because I wanted to increase the quality of my images and really explore photography, but without the addition of a huge bulky DSLR (which I had seen other travelers tote around for the first week of their travels until it was abandoned for a more convenient smartphone.)

On Making the Switch to a Mirrorless Camera System

Knowing that I wanted the flexibility to play with manual settings, learn more about photography basics, and find a camera I was willing to carry in my purse, I first looked straight at the new mirrorless camera systems I had seen raved on camera blogs. They won me over. Back then it was this pro photographer’s review, and since then this photographer’s review has me assured going to the micro four-thirds system was wise.

In 2010, I was an early adopter to the mirrorless line and first opted for the Panasonic Lumix GF series (a GF1 in fact). Since then, I loved the camera so much that I upgraded to a Panasonic GX7 in 2014 to coincide with an overland trip through Africa. The future models of the GF series became more mass consumer oriented, and the true predecessor to the GF1 moved to the GX line. Both lines have gorgeous cameras, but the GX series has more control and is made to shoot more easily in manual mode, where the GF series takes similarly gorgeous photos, but is easiest in auto or scene mode.

Double bonus, my Panasonic GX7 was named by National Geographic as one of the top 10 compact cameras for travelers.

Those other reviews I linked to are the professionals take on the camera system, but below I review this from the viewpoint of a self-taught travel photographer on the road for 6+ years now.

The short story on this camera?

Great depth of field, super compact, and really durable (it even survived a motorbike accident in Laos, getting soaked at Songkran in Thailand, and the windy red sands in Bagan, Myanmar. My GX7 survived dusty roads on safari in Tanzania and the waters of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe). The technology for micro-four thirds cameras is progressing rapidly and these cameras are increasingly popular because they so gracefully bridge the gap between professional camera gear (DSLRs) and simple point-and-shoots.

panasonic lumix review

Why I Upgraded My Camera?

Now, while I am far from a professional photographer, the photos I’ve taken these past 4+ years with my Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera are the best photos I’ve taken in my life. Since leaving in late 2008, I have taken bucket-loads of photos—I uploaded thousands of photos into my travel photo galleries. Each of those photos represents a pulse of life now long forgotten, or a rare and beautiful vista I captured forever in my lens, and still others function like a time machine, propelling me right back into the midst of some sort of existential conversation about life-family-humanity-politics-love with a friend met on the road.

camera review

My photos eloquently tell the story of my years on the road (and sometimes far better than my words if you happened to catch my writing in those early months). This blog has chronicled my journey and my handy point-and-shoot Canon camera served nicely as a pocket-sized, go-anywhere way to document each new place.

But a year and a half ago I upgraded my gear and invested in a camera with interchangeable lenses, full manual mode, and some other bells and whistles. I also commited to learning how to use Lightroom so I can (and do) post-process every single photo you see on this site since 2011.

Picking a new camera was tricky. So, in 2010 I researched and happened upon a professional photographer’s review of this new-fangled type of camera, the Panasonic Lumix MFT. His review is stellar because he has the fancy ones, but still loved aspects of the new technology (and took gorgeous photos). So I bought that exact camera and loved it to pieces. I would still be loving it but my dad gave me the newest version, the GX7 in January 2014 for my birthday and now I love that one to absolute pieces.

lumix depth of field review

Let’s get down to the meat of this review now and start with my overall opinion:

This just is one of the best travel cameras on the market if you want a bit more power and flexibility than a point-and-shoot but a camera light enough to carry everywhere.

What I Love About My Lumix

  • The cameras depth of field from my 20mm pancake kit lens; this lens took my food photography to the next level of drool-worthiness.
  • My lenses. The 20mm kit lens is versatile and took every single photo on this site from August 2010- January 2014. And, even zoom lenses are compact. I often now shoot with my 14-45mm, and it’s a good everyday lens. I debated on which zoom lens to get, and the 45-200mm zoom performed pretty well on my safari in Africa.
  • The camera is small and sturdy and kind of retro looking (people actually often think it’s old-school film!).
  • I take it everywhere because it’s light and compact (thanks to the micro four thirds technology).
  • The price was just right; although the GF1 is no longer on the market, the newer versions in the GF series are in the same price bracket (generally less than $800 for the body and one lens). And in upgrading to the GX7, the price was a bit higher, but all my lenses still worked!

Drawbacks to My Micro Four-Thirds

The main difference between a MFT camera and the large, professional DSLR lies in the mirrorless technology. The MFT manages to forgo some of the mirrors inside the camera body, and thus shrunk in size much closer to the pocket cameras, but still supports interchangeable lenses, captures RAW images, and takes a fantastic photo. Without the mirror though, and with the lighter weight moving the camera, there are some issues.

1) It borders on craptastic in low-light situations. That is noted in just about every review of this type of camera because of the technology needed to make it so compact (Jodi at LegalNomads has the Olympus PEN micro four thirds and reports the same!) On the flip side though, I took all the photos from Loy Krathong in Thailand last fall with the GF1, and they turned out beautifully, so it’s still not fully terrible.

1) UPDATED: It’s good in low-light situations. The newest micro four thirds cameras are a lot better now than the 2010 versions. I was an early adopter and the low-light performance was just a growing pain in the technology. My GX7 did very, very well on my Africa travels and I noticed very few disappointing low-light moments.

2) UPDATED: No viewfinder, just a LCD screen. The GF series continues to have just an LCD screen, and new versions articulate; I used this for years and made-due because only strong mid-day sun really made it inconvenient. Now that the GX7 has an electronic viewfinder though, I found myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. It was a nice bonus in the upgrade, though it does make the camera a little bulkier and it’s not quite as sleek with the viewfinder sticking out a bit.

3) You have to switch lenses. A professional will laugh at this comment, but if you love the ease of a point-and-shoot, the 20mm lens has no built-in zoom, so you have to switch over to a different lens, often in dusty, dirty travel situations, and it’s more work. But worth it.

panasonic lumix gf1

The Physical Side of My Camera

I love the weight of the camera (about 10 ounces with the 20mm pancake lens), and how it feels in my hand when shooting. And I love that it’s so much less intimidating in travel situations because it’s so low-profile. All of the buttons are easily pressed with just my right hand, and the dial on the top rotates easily to switch between the different modes (now done on the touch-screen of the latest release, the Lumix GF6).

This is what my GF1 looks like, the different buttons, and my lens so you can get a feel for the small and compact camera. Note that the newest models look similar, but have fewer buttons and a touch-screen LCD panel. Every button I need to quickly change controls is simple with just my right hand in most cases, and that little red dot near the shutter-button quickly activates video so I can rapidly catch special moments as they happen!

You can see what the GX7 looks like here, it has a viewfinder, but many of the same exact buttons as the GF1, which is why I love it as the predecessor to my GF1.

My Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm aspherical pancake lens.

Why the Micro-Four-Thirds is Great for this Traveler

  • Photography fascinates me and I love learning new things. With this camera I have the ability to sit in a pretty spot and play with composition, exposure, shutter-speed, aperture, and all sorts of different modes to craft a photo that accurately reflects what I see in front of me.
  • It’s opened me up to the art of photography, the crafting of an image as opposed to the more mindless act of documenting with a quick snapshot in each place.
  • It fits in my purse and I rarely groan about “how heavy it is” or wonder “if I should leave it behind for the day.” (In fact, with the pancake lens on, it fits inside a zoom-lens case I found at Ritz camera and this is where it has lived ever since when I am on the road).
  • The camera takes beautiful portraits, landscapes, and close-up food photos—that covers 85 percent of what I take when traveling.
  • It was affordable, the GF series is usually in the $500 range with a kit lens, the GX series comes in closer to $1000+ for the body and a lens.

GF1 review
I bought my Panasonic GF1 in August 2010 and there was a learning curve (heck, who am I kidding, there is still a learning curve!) but I love that it truly does make a bridge between the point-and-shoot cameras and a full (read: expensive) DSLR—when I’m flustered by the manual mode settings it’s a quick flip of the button into auto mode and it’s petite and light. It’s worth noting that I also now consistently use Lightroom and do post-editing, and that has made a big difference in photo-quality.

And now that I upgraded, I am so happy every day with my Panasonic Lumix GX7. It’s a gorgeous camera and many on-the-road travelers see the low-profile camera with so much power behind it and swear they’ll get one for their next trip.

I invested in this camera because I fell in love with photography over the many years since I left in 2008—without much theatre, acting, and dance in my life, photography slowly filled its place on the road. One day in the future, I may add in a full DSLR if my photography skills ever call for it, but right now this camera is serving exactly the role I need on my travels and I consider it a solid investment.

Do you have a micro four thirds? Thoughts on traveling with it? Any other travel sized cameras you particularly love?

mekong river boats

A Little Photoessay… A Slice of Life on the Mighty Mekong

Originating high in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River is the life-blood of activity throughout the history of southeast Asia. Locally known as the Mae Nam Khong, the literal translation is Mother of Water River. The river runs through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and over the centuries consistently remained an important focal point for locals, governments, and foreign countries.

Locals use the River to sustain life — food, transportation and local trade.

Sunset on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, Laos
Boats are already docked in the gently swaying waters by the time the sun is setting. The boat workers must have left to find dinner because the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang were nearly empty this time of day!

Governments dam and re-route the river in political power struggles between the nations sharing the Mekong River’s natural resources, and international political struggles have relied on the power of the Mekong to push goods out to foreign ports for profit and trade.

There’s a lot to this powerful river and it’s with good reason the the poetic and alliterative description the Mighty Mekong fits so well.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen various parts of the Mekong River–within Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to be exact, and below you’ll find a slice of that life I witnessed as locals use the river waters and mineral-rich banks to sustain their lives and livelihoods.

monks on mekong river
Just before sunset in Luang Prabang, Laos, young monks c00l off from the afternoon heat in the river waters where the Nam Khan and Mekong intersect; their giggles and shouts echoed out over the nearby river banks.
mekong river
These children swam to a sandy island in the middle of the river for a lively game of kick ball. When the other team really got a good kick in, the losers had to dive into the river to retrieve their ball! Luang Prabang, Laos.
boy in river
A young boy was excited to see me so far from town as my niece and I walked the banks of the Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos. Clearly he was familiar with the camera though and hammed it up with different poses!
Slow boats in Luang Prabang, Laos
The iconic wooden slow boats dot the Mekong River all day long as tourists come and go, and locals transport their goods from one town to another. Locals use the small uncovered boats for fishing and quick trips across the river.
slow boats
Satellite dishes adorn traditional wooden slow boats (which are also used as houses for some Laotians) in an odd display of modernity as a man extricates his boat from the docks in Houay Xai, a border town with Thailand.
Several huge semi truks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai.
Several huge semi trucks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai, the border towns on each side of the Mekong.
slow boat Mekong River
Our captain carefully guides the slow boat down the Mekong River, watching to avoid the huge rocks and swift current in some areas as we make down river from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang, Laos.
huts on river laos
The slow boat occasionally stopped at small smatterings of wooden and bamboo huts lining the Mekong.
laotian boys
Young boys board our slow boat at the tiny towns and sell snacks and cold drinks to the tourists on board. They come on for just two or three minutes and swarm the boat to make sure they hit every possible sale.
Child on the Mekong River, Laos
A little girl with hand-woven baskets looks at me quizzically as I slowly float by her home while she prepares dinner on the banks of the Mekong River.
sunset laos
Ana plays with the light from the setting sun on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Yangshuo light show China

A Little Light Show…Harmonizing Nature and Theatre in Yangshuo

Murmurings from the large audience hushed as a clear and open darkness dropped over our outdoor theatre. The silence was far from absolute though as a breeze swept nearby leaves into a quiet song, a gentle lapping of water, and eventually the sweet notes of a string instrument drifting up from the distant water as the show began.

The Liu Sanjie light show in Yangshuo, China
My favorite scene from the light show; I love the simple beauty of the illuminated figures on the Li River and the striking white light on the distant limestone rocks in Yangshuo, China.

The boats paddled out from the edges of our riverside theatre and colored floodlights illuminated the distant limestone mountains in a myriad of primary colors accompanying the mood of the story. Back in 2008, I somehow missed the elaborate light shows designed for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics but the shows wowed my traveling companions back then and they instantly recognized the name of director Zhang Yimou, who used his hometown region of Yangshuo as the backdrop for a new but similarly crafted permanent show.

The Impression Liu Sanjie light show is one of those much-touted events for travelers to Yangshuo; even if my friends hadn’t known about the light show, the touts and sales agents in the town’s center made sure we had plenty of brochures in our hands! We debated the cost versus experience and decided to spring for the comparatively pricey tickets and welcomed the opportunity to see one of director Yimou’s signature shows live and in its intended environment.

Light show Yangshuo, China.
Dramatic fire and beating drums up the tension as the story plays out in Yangshuo, China.

I fell in love with the outdoor aspect to the experience. The ancient Greeks had it right all along, epic performances of love, comedy, and tragedy should  transpire on open stages and limitless roofs. Music drifted from the show into the heavens and a misty moonlight penetrated the dense sky, mixing with lights from the show and spreading into the forested areas that made up the “back” of our theatre.

Yangshuo China lights show
A better idea of the sheer size of the outdoor theatre for the Impression light show in Yangshuo.

The show is pretty; the music haunting as it drifted across the water and washed over the stair-step rows of intent faces watching the performance. The story moved through different phases from folk music to traditional dancing and, at times, the sheer spectacle of perfectly timed and choreographed lights and rhythms captivated my imagination even though the entire story was relayed in Chinese (a language very distant from anything I comprehend).

Impression light show in Yangshuo
Huge ribbons of red fabric span the river as the actors stand on personal, tiny boats to create captivating rhythmic patterns to compliment the story while using the vast open sky for light patterns and entertainment.

The show is gorgeous and I alternated between fascination and open anticipation. There were a couple of moments that fell flat from my expectations…perhaps I set the bar too high after hearing so many stories exulting the director’s past shows and skills.  But I enjoyed the evening and the experience of watching a performance that harmonizes the unpredictability of nature with human beings. Even in less-than-ideal weather, the performers embrace the elements and augment the experience with whatever nature happens to conjure up–be it wind, mist, or rain– for that performance.

Quick Tips: Impression Light Show in Yangshuo, China

What: A beautiful display of lights and story set on the Li River; more than 600 actors tell the love story over the course of 60+ minutes of music, dance, and theatrical displays. Show designed by director Zhang Yimou.
Where
: Likely your hotel or the company you book the tickets through will arrange your transportation to the entrance. The light show venue is very near the Yangshuo city center but requires transportation and outside coordination.
When: During peak season two nightly showings at 19:00 and 21:00; canceled in extreme weather (rain, severely cold)
How much: Roughly US $30 (RMB 198) for general seating.
Extra Tips: Bring gear to combat the weather. I visited in the early Spring (last week of March) and was grateful to have my warm jacket and a rain poncho on hand!