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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, long term travel, Shanghai, Travel, Travelzoo

Surviving Shanghai

Finally our moment of freedom has come. We have one more day in China and it’s a free day to explore Shanghai. Or so we thought. There’s mention of a morning factory visit and then optional city stuff followed by a farewell dinner and a boat cruise near The Bund, but we decide we will go our own way today.

I sleep in a little bit and leisurely head down to breakfast as the rest of the group is finishing up and headed to the bus. I grab a cup of coffee and pick up the local English paper. And just as I sit down with some dumplings, Katherine comes over to me and says, “We have to go on the factory visit this morning. And if we don’t, we have to pay $100 each.” At this point, I’m pissed. What kind of situation is this, where we’ll be fined if we don’t attend? I’ve visited more factories this week than someone on a business trip, and today is meant to be our free day. Katherine follows up with, “We’re free to go after the visit, but we have to go this morning.”

I look outside and the bus is waiting for us and a few others who had the same idea initially. I chug my coffee, grab my coat and head to the bus. I pass Michael on the way and say to him. “I know you’re in a tough situation, but this isn’t right.” I half jokingly tell him I feel like a hostage.

We make our way to the other side of Shanghai and as we turn into what will be the last factory visit of the tour, Michael says, “There’s something different about this business. This is the only factory that is not government run. It is private. They sell jade and jewelry.” Just what we all need more of!

We enter in and are taken to a fancy showroom where we’re seated around a big, dark wooden office table. A lady greets us and begins to ask us all about our trip – where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what Chinese we have learned. She seems to be biding her time, and a well dressed overweight man walks into and out of the showroom a couple of times. I get the sense that something is off. I look to Jay and Ivy who are sitting next to me and say, “Are these guys Chinese mafia?” Ivy, who is Vietnamese starts nodding her head in agreement and says, “He is not Chinese, he is Vietnamese, and yes, I’m pretty sure he’s mafia.” As she goes on to explain the housing market crash and the relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese, I have visions in my head of what will happen if no one decides to buy anything. This really isn’t how I wanted to spend my last day in China.

Fortunately, I’m at the back of the room, nearest the exit, so Katherine and I walk out and wait by the bus. It’s at least another 30 minutes before the rest of the group finishes up. Michael asks us to sign a waiver, stating that we are choosing to leave the group tour and are responsible for ourselves for the rest of our time in Shanghai, as if we’ve never traveled before. And then, we truly are free.

Fuxing Road, Shanghai.

We begin our whirlwind tour of Shanghai, first jumping on the metro and heading over to Fuxing Park, where we watch a couple practicing their ballroom dancing moves (Yes, it’s a thing), while kids fly kites and a few practice Tai chi.

Shanghai is surprisingly orderly and modern compared to Beijing. I can see why people love this city. There’s a subtle energy here that isn’t overwhelming, but there’s definitely a buzz.

The master mixologist, Roger.

We decide to look for a spa to get a foot massage and then make our way over to The Bund, but Katherine recommends we stop at a little corner cafe for a drink. It’s still early, but after the morning we’ve had, we all oblige. We duck in to Sober Cafe, where we meet the friendly barman, Roger and spend the afternoon taste testing his award winning cocktails. Roger is originally from Japan, but he has been working in Shanghai for a couple of years now. He tells us of the speakeasy movement taking place right now and says he’ll message us later to see if we want to meet up.

A lot of the day has slipped away, but we head over to a local spa for one of our last opportunities for a massage. The boys opt for a one-hour traditional massage and Katherine and I take an hour of reflexology. I’m asleep 30 minutes in, but we all leave with a second wind and jump in a taxi to head over to The Bund.

Shanghai’s beautiful skyline.

Katherine, Warren, me and Ray.

The Bund is the former Shanghai International Settlement and is a collection of varying architectural styles, including Baroque Revival, Art Nouveau, Beaux- Arts and many more. Because of this, Shanghai boasts one of the most unique skylines in the world. We make it our mission to see it from a few different angles, heading up to Bar Rogue for one view and then over to the much more refined Hyatt hotel for a look down from the VUE bar.

The view from Bar Rouge.

It’s bitterly cold and Shanghai is due its first snowfall of the season tonight. As we sit huddled under heat lamps on the outside patio, the first flurries start to fall.

Katherine and I shoot each other a look that says, “I wonder if we’ll make it out of here tomorrow.” As much as we’re on the same page about being ready to head home, we both know we wouldn’t mind an extra day to explore independently.

Today was a reminder of how we travel – a free day to roam, explore, get lost, make friends, and discover the hidden gems on our own. It’s been a great trip overall, but to end with a day like today reminds me of how I like to travel. I’ve given the guided tour a try… and while there are many good things I can say about it, especially in China, I think there’s no better way than to go your own way.

Next post: Guided China, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly…


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Guided Tour, long term travel, Travel

“Follow Michael” – The Beginning Of My Guided Tour Through China

Even just a few years back, if you’d asked me if I would consider booking, book, or actually go on a guided tour, the answer would have been “no.” Not just an “i don’t think so,” or a “let me think about it,” but an ‘it’s against my religion kind of “no.” ‘ You see, in the world of hard core travel, guided tours are like the cardinal sin. They’re the easy way out for the traveler who doesn’t want to do the planning, for the apprehensive traveler who’s afraid of the language barrier, or for the fearful one who thinks the location isn’t safe to tackle alone. They’re the opposite of authenticity.

Hainan Airlines from Boston to Beijing

Well, forgive me Father of Travel because I have sinned… and I’ve gone and booked a cheaper than chips 8-day GUIDED trip to China. I hope that given this is close to my 65th country, I have some sort of clout… but as I see the Compass Holiday flag in the busy arrival hall upon landing in Beijing, I wonder if I have sold myself out.

After the 13 1/2 hour flight, I’m too tired to really think about it that much, and in my zombie state, I curse the missing two travelers our group of 20 or so is waiting for.

After about an hour of waiting, our Chinese tour guide, “Michael” who refers to himself in the third person, rounds up the group, and exclaims very loudly and in his very thick accent, “Follow Michael.” And we do as said, and make our way to the tour bus waiting outside.

It’s 10pm now, 9am to our bodies, so we don’t know if we should feel ready to go to bed or start the day. We board the bus for the 40-minute drive to the promised 4-star hotel, and Michael begins our first Chinese history lesson… Communism, Socialism, Mings and Qings. My friend Katherine, who I roped into taking this trip with me, is asleep in the seat next to me. I fight sleep as Michael tells us, “China is a chicken: Beijing is the neck, Shanghai is the belly, Hong Kong is the foot. ” He then comes around to sell us water and see if we want to opt in for the Beijing City Tour the following day. No, no thanks. We’re all set and will explore on our own. Katherine and I are two of the four people not opting in to the guided tour the following day.

Garden International Hotel, Beijing

As we drive, I see a pretty, ornate building and wonder if it’s our hotel. I nudge Katherine. “Wouldn’t that be awesome if it was our hotel?” I say, as the bus turns around and pulls in to the entrance.

THE Toilet

We step off the bus, gather our bags and make our way to the lobby to get checked in. It’s late and the hotel is empty, but the staff is eagerly waiting to assist us. We get our keys and head to our room, which is just as luxurious as the view of the hotel from the roadway. Not to mention the heated toilet seat!


I call the front desk to confirm what time breakfast is, and the employee that answers the phone uses google translate to tell me to “hold on one second” and “I will call you right back.” And he does, breakfast is 7am-10am on the 2nd floor.

I quickly try to check Facebook, Instagram, email…Nothing. It’s looking like I’m going to have a nice digital detox while in China.

Despite the time difference, we crawl into our comfy beds and sleep. And I wonder what this guided trip has in store for us?

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, long term travel, Travel, Varadero

A Break from our Break in Varadero

We wake the next morning with one thing on the mind and one thing only, the beach. We pack up a day bag, grab breakfast at Cafe Ria (because it was so good yesterday), and begin the walk to the beach. We take a different route today, walking on a street parallel to the beach passing stall after stall of souvenirs. Sombreros, sundresses, tee shirts, postcards, jewelry, maracas…you name it, you can find it. Shops are interspersed with street side cafes and cantinas and the occasional casa or apartment complex.

We continue down this road to the to the bus station to inquire about transportation back to Havana, only to find out that all buses the following day are fully booked. I refuse to worry. I’m officially in a Cuban state of mind, and I tell Christy we shouldn’t worry… we will sort something out. It’s hot and we don’t want to sacrifice any more beach time, so we head straight there.

We cut across a couple of side streets and look for access to the beach. Much of the beach front is taken up by all inclusive resorts, where you have to be a paying guest to rent chairs and umbrellas or even be served a drink. We quickly find out they won’t budge on this rule and begin to seek out a public entryway to the beach, our dreams of reclining and being served fruity drinks from coconuts shattered. We find public entry to the beach at the top of the next street, next to a construction site for a new all-inclusive spot that will be opening next year. At the end of that small street is a little cantina that sells cheap Cristal and strong mojitos in plastic cups. This will work perfectly!

We attempt to set up our spot on the beach, but it’s impossible for me to take my eyes off the view. To the left and right of us is powder white soft sand for miles, and in front of us, as far as the eye can see is the most beautiful crystal clear aquamarine ocean. It’s one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. 

We dump our bags, strip out of sweaty cover ups and run down to the waters’ edge. The water is luke warm and inviting, and we wade out about 30 feet or so, playing in the small waves. As the water laps my shoulders, I look down and realize I can still see my pink toenail polish. I am well-traveled, but I have never been in water like this. 

We spend the day frolicking in the ocean, walking along the beach, and sunning ourselves with the surrounding half naked German, Canadian and Italian tourists. And occasionally, we pop back to our little cantina for a mojito or two. I can spend hours here and we do. But as the light changes to a softer shade, indicating the arrival of evening, we are reminded that we still have no way of getting back to Havana tomorrow.

We pack up and walk along the beach, back to the direction of the roadside stand where Pedro & “Potpourri” work. Before we stop in to visit with them, we pay a visit to the nearby all inclusive resort, where we manage to steal wifi for a few minutes. On the front steps of the hotel, we quickly check email and texts and I send my dad a “Happy Birthday” message. Then a beat up 90s Nissan pulls up. Without hesitation, I walk over and ask the driver if he wants to take us to Havana tomorrow. We agree on the price of 30 CUC and a pick up time of 9am outside Cafe Ria. Well, that was easy. With that sorted, it’s now time for happy hour and our last night in Varadero.

Backpacking, long term travel

Have You Hit the Travel Wall?

It’s Monday morning, and people all over the world are dragging themselves out of bed for yet another week of work. I’m sure more than a few people will spend some of their day wishing they were somewhere other than at their desks. Some may even spend a few minutes looking for an idyllic beach screen shot to refresh their desktop background with… you get the point. We spend a lot of our time dreaming of getting away, but if you’ve ever traveled for an extended period of time, you may realize that the desire to return home can eventually be as strong as the initial desire was to get away.

Travel is, and should be, enjoyable. You’ve worked hard for that around-the-world ticket. You’ve left jobs to enable enough time away. You’ve said goodbye to family, friends, and significant others so you can realize this dream. But what happens when you’re in a place where cringe-worthy moments seem to outnumber the breathtaking ones?
Chances are you’ve hit the travel wall.
A number of odd things start to happen as you approach this wall. You may start to realize that things which initially intrigued you about a place start to annoy you and become just so… well, foreign.
Many little things begin to hit a nerve. The temple across the street that replays the same chanting music non-stop becomes the bane of your afternoon existence. The man who stands on the corner of Bogyoke Aung San and Sule Pagoda Roads, who asks you everyday if you need to change money, book a ticket, and then slyly and suggestively says, “you want massage?” has a knack of seeking you out in a crowd of hundreds.
You start to crave the comforts of home – you’d kill for a clean shower where you don’t have to wear your flip flops, you have washed your clothes in the sink so many times you forget what washing machine settings are. Street stall dinners of noodles and rice start to get repetitive, and you’d pretty much give anything for a piece of toast and a real cup of coffee (not a Nescafe). You opt out of the wake up call for sunrise at the temple or mountaintop because a lie-in sounds more appealing, and you jump for joy when you open the door to a bathroom and there’s a western toilet.
SO, What can you do to avoid said wall?
I’m sure the person who says they can travel forever is out there. I used to say this too, but I’ve learned through frequent long stints overseas that the perfect amount of time away for me is four months. This is four months of moving around. By this point in time, I am more than ready to rest, process, decompress and empty the contents of my pack and stay put for a bit.
But to avoid hitting the wall altogether, build in rest days. If you’re a planner, add these “days off” into your itinerary. I remember planning a six week backpacking trip with my best friend following high school graduation. I mapped out the itinerary and sent it to a few older and wiser travelers, most of who responded asking me if I wanted to enjoy any of that trip. Traveling everyday without any days off is setting yourself up for backpacker burnout.
And after burning out, you will wonder what you truly saw. Fully immerse yourself in a few places, instead of skimming the surface of the whole lot. Aside from rest days, planning a journey that enables you to see a few places in depth, instead of simply breezing through every city in ten countries will leave you with more energy and a deeper appreciation for what you have seen. If you’re spending a day or two in each place before catching your overnight bus to the next city and hitting repeat, you will no doubt wear out more quickly and look back with feelings of regret for not slowing down and savoring the journey. (This applies to any length of trip.)
Have a plan you can stray from. I love a rough plan or framework, but what’s the saying?… “Even the best laid plans…” Things will come up. You will fall in love with a place, or a person that you want to continue your journey with. You may really not like a place, or a person you have been traveling with… Be flexible and don’t put pressure on yourself to see and do absolutely everything Lonely Planet recommends. And if your priorities are different than those of your quickly forming backpacking posse, break away. It’s okay, and sometimes more rewarding, to go it alone.
Build in a few little luxuries for yourself. There’s nothing like a little bit of pampering on the road. Book yourself a massage, head out to the international restaurant and have a burger and fries, throw away the old traveling pants you’ve been wearing for four years and hit up the local market for a posh, new pair. If your budget will stretch, book yourself one or two nights at a real hotel- not a dorm or guest house, but somewhere you can take a bath and then lay in bed and watch TV.  (These are things I used to consider against the Backpacking Bible’s Code of Ethics, but I’ve hit the wall a couple of times now, and I think a few cheats are OK. Just NO MCDONALD’S…EVER!)
Plan your route strategically. On my first trip around the world, I started with India. My energy levels were high and my mind was open and I was so eager to hit the road. Culture shock was welcomed and I embraced every new experience and even welcomed the crazier, more adventurous ones. Overnight buses breaking down, homestays in remote tribal villages, stories of tummy bugs hitting at the most inopportune times- they were all just part of the ‘experience.’ But after five broken down buses in a row during your fourteenth week of travel, it can become a bit trying. So, if possible, plan travel to developing countries at the beginning of your trip, saving the beach bungalow in Bali for when you need some serious down time.
But if you’ve already hit the wall, here are some tips on how to recharge on the road and still savor the rest of your trip.
Take a break from your break. After I had seen all I wanted to in Burma, I returned to Yangon and holed up in a $10 a night guesthouse for over a week. And I didn’t do a whole lot. There was a day where I sat in a European cafe for 7 hours, editing photos and writing. I didn’t feel guilty about this. The coffee was excellent, the tunes were good and the AC brought me back to life within minutes. I interspersed my escape with cultural excursions too. But the three-hour tour on the Yangon Circular train was followed by a trip to Union Bar, for a nice glass of vino, or two.
Go somewhere easy. That’s right. Head to that idyllic Thai beach.
Stay there for a while. Find a cheap room and sit on that beach, drink from coconuts, read a book, and rest. Sign up for a yoga or meditation course, or don’t.

If all else fails, it’s alright to admit defeat and head home. No, you haven’t failed. I recently cut a trip short by two weeks and traveled home early to spend my first Thanksgiving in five years with my family. Alright, it’s not the same as eating Apple Pie at 3,500 meters up on the Annapurna Circuit, sampling Aquavit in Denmark while visiting an old travel companion, or cooking up a Thanksgiving feast “Down Under” with new dive buddies. But it is a perfect time to relax, rest and process the past five months… and most importantly began planning the next adventure.

I hope everyone had a Happy (and restful) Thanksgiving wherever in the world you spent it!

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel

The Bucket List – International Travel

People always ask me how I pick the countries I end up visiting. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer. Inspiration comes from many places, seeing a picture, hearing about another persons adventures, reading other travelers’ blogs, or just being curious about a place because so much IS unknown.

I do have lists though. They are everywhere… in notebooks, on my phone in the “note” section, in old journals… I love finding the old lists, so I can see which countries have drawn me in enough to actually plan the trip and visit. And then I create a new list, carrying over the places I haven’t made it to yet and adding new ones. Obviously, this list is always growing, despite how much I travel and how many countries I cross off.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to every country in the world in this lifetime, but I’m close to making it to all seven continents, and I have 39 countries crossed off the list so far. My goal this year is to travel to another five.

When planning a trip, I like to map out a logical route, so it makes economical sense and so I don’t waste time back-tracking. Unfortunately, the countries on my list right now are random, so it may just be that some are carried over to next year.

Here are the countries I am itching to get to…

Burma– I actually have a current visa in my passport for Burma, but unfortunately, I won’t be using it before February. So Burma stays on the list at number 1. Many think I’m out of my mind for wanting to travel to this “unsafe,” “poor,” “politically corrupt” country, but I’m anxious to get there sooner rather than later. A country which is now truly opening up to the idea of tourism is bound to change by leaps and bounds, and fast…just look at neighboring Thailand. Burma is the country of The Golden Rock, the temples of Bagan and Inle Lake. It’s a country of political unrest and a home to people fighting for democracy, people full of hope for a brighter and better future. Burma is on the brink of change, and while I hope for positive social change for them, I want to get there before there’s too much commercial change. I better hurry.

Norway– What sold me on Norway a couple of years ago were pictures. Just google Norway and browse the images that come up- bright green fjords plunging into deep blue rivers, colorful fishing towns, the aurora borealis. Norway is visually stunning and as a photographer, I can’t wait to get there. I have also met quite a few Norwegians on my travels, and they have added to my fascination with this Scandinavian country. I have had the opportunity to travel to other countries in this region, and I’m a big fan of the cleanliness and order that comes with being in Scandinavia. People are down to earth and systems just seem to work. Let’s face it though, Norway is expensive. This would be a great country to consider some couchsurfing in… A sofa or spare bed to sleep on will help you save some spending money and it always enables you the chance to get a deeper insight into life in a foreign land. (

Jordan- I traveled to Israel in November 2011, and I am still kicking myself for not making it to Jordan. But I think Jordan deserves its own trip, and not just a side trip from Israel (or so I’ll keep saying, so I don’t feel too bad). First things first – Petra. I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine standing in front of, and looking up at this architectural marvel. I love being transported back in time by places, and I imagine this is what would happen here. Pair this with the fact that the Arabic people are some of the most hospitable in the world, and the cuisine is pretty damn good too, and you have the makings of an unbelievable journey. (Jordan remains open for travel, despite the political turmoil of neighboring countries.)

Patagonia– Ok, I realize this is a region comprised of both Argentina and Chile, so consider this a super-sized order. Patagonia’s been on my list since I started traveling hard core about four years ago. I am completely amazed by a place I have yet to visit. It’s all about nature here. I’ll leave electronic devices behind, put a backpack on my back and some hiking boots on my feet, and just go!  But I will make sure to have a camera in my hand. I’m looking forward to the evening when I watch the sun set over Torres del Paine and wake up the following morning to head to Perito Moreno for some glacier trekking. I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time! They say traveling to Patagonia is like traveling to the end of the Earth. In fact, Ushuaia (a jumping off point for exploring Patagonia) is considered the southernmost city in the world, but hold for the next one on the list…

Antarctica– If you find yourself in Ushuaia with some extra time on your hands, rumor has it you can score a week-long Antarctic cruise for around $1000 (USD). Alright, that’s still a good chunk of change, but considering these will set you back around $4000 (USD) normally, you’re saving considerably on this trip of a lifetime. Think about a crisp blue sky and massive white icebergs that are home to polar bears, seals, penguins, whales and albatross, and no one else around you for miles, literally. And if you’re like me, your life goal is to step foot on all seven continents!

Madagascar- Growing up my brother and I had plastic dinner placemats which were maps of the world. After dinner, my dad would always quiz us on the location of places, and I thought Madagascar sounded like the coolest place in the world.  I must admit my ignorance here, and tell you I don’t know much about Madagascar. I know it’s a place considered by travelers to be “the best kept secret.” It’s becoming a more talked about place on travel forums and over late night beers at the hostel. But what is the draw? Well, I think that’s where the intrigue lies here. It still feels like a place to be discovered. Better get there soon before it’s no longer a secret.  (And check out the baobab trees, a definite highlight for photographers!)

New Zealand-Spend the day trekking through terrain and scenery made famous by The Lord of the Rings, and end the day with a meal of New Zealand lamb paired with a local pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. Then head north to a 90-mile stretch of surfbreak. Visit Christchurch or Queenstown for a city fix, or learn about the ancient Maori traditions… I’m sold. New Zealand has so much to offer. The only thing that makes traveling here a challenge is it’s not in my frequent flyer network and the cost of living is high. I hope to make it here sooner rather than later though! (If you’re under the age of 30, you can easily get a working holiday visa- which can help with that whole “money” thing).

So that wraps it up. These are the places calling my name, topping the list. There are other places lingering in the wings – Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, Peru, Japan… but the countries listed above have my attention, and I need to get to see them soon. And now, I wonder, where will 2013 take me?? Which new stamps will my passport hold this time next year, and which places will still be left on the list? What new countries will I discover and add to the list? The adventure, like always, is yet to unfold. And that, my fellow travelers, is the best part.

Stay tuned…Next time I will share some personal advice and useful resources to help you plan your own Around-The-World journey.

Africa, Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Marrakech, Morocco, Travel

My First Footsteps in Africa

The “Hand of Fatima” believed to bring good luck

I’m not going to lie, Morocco has me quite apprehensive. My latest travels have been to what I consider easy places. I classify those as first world, English speaking, relatively clean countries that have running water, and don’t worry you with stomach bugs and other life threatening ailments. Spending the Spring in Hawaii, and most recently, traveling through Iceland, England and France – it’s all been a cake-walk. Now, I need to get into a different mindset for Morocco.

I try not to carry stereotypes with me when I travel to a new place, but as a solo-female traveler, I do tend to keep my guard up in a place until I can get my bearings as well as a feel for a place and its people.

I had originally hoped to travel by train from Paris to southern Spain and then take the boat from Algeciras to Tangiers, but it was over double the cost of a plane ticket, so I booked a one-way ticket from Paris to Marrakech, and 4 hours later, I find myself in the craziness of this busy city. My first two reliefs when I arrive in a somewhat chaotic place- one- my bag thankfully arrives and two- I find transport at a decent price to a decent place to stay. The rest will fall into place. With my bag in tow, i hit up the ATM for some Dirham and make my way to the taxi line to haggle the price of a taxi to town. I know from research it should cost between 70-100 dihram for the journey. The first guy quotes me 13 Euro, double what it should be. Then it’s 250 dirham- price just went up. I tell him no, and that I want to pay what everyone else pays, so he tells me to wait, while he telephones another taxi. I wait, the taxi arrives, we agree on 80 dirham. I now understand what Morocco will be like.

I am dropped outside Djemaa el-Fna, the main square, and to say it is a maze is an understatement. The cars can go no further, so the taxi driver drops me and tells me to walk straight and then right and I will find my hotel. The streets are swarmed with vendors, diners, people out for an evening stroll, tourists and hagglers. I dodge the hagglers and walk straight, trying not to make eye contact with anyone who wants to sell me a hotel room, a henna tattoo or anything else he has up his sleeve. I do however need directions, cause I have no idea where the hell i am, so I pop into a pharmacy and using the French I so thankfully remember, I get somewhat clear directions to where I’m going. I only have to stop another three times to clarify. After multiple turns down hidden lanes and alleyways, I see Hotel Essouira on a signpost ahead. I feel a sense of relief, but when I arrive, there are no rooms, sorry, try next door.

Hotel Medina’s courtyard

I get a little room in Hotel Medina next door for $10 a night. I drop my bags and venture out for dinner. I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I head to Snack Toubkal, a makeshift cafe created out of plastic garden furniture. I have to wait for a seat, so I’m assured it’s a decent place to eat. I order my first authentic vegetable couscous. I get halfway through the dish, and I can eat no more- it didn’t look like a lot of food, but it sure is filling. I head back to Hotel Medina for a good night’s sleep, and wonder what Marrakech has in store for me.

A typical storefront near Djemaa el-Fnaa


The following morning, I head to Bahia Palace to start my tour of Marrakech. I study the map closely and confirm directions with the guy at the hotel. He says, “it’s easy, takes 10 minutes.” I walk away from Djemaa el-Fna, passing stall after stall of shoes, lanterns, leather bags, spices, plates, ornaments, postcards and pashminas. I reach a main road and bear left dodging cars, mopeds, motorcycles and horse-drawn carriages. I do a little victory dance when I reach Bahia Palace.


Bahia means beautiful, and it’s appropriately named. Even just stepping onto the grounds of the palace, I feel like I’m taken away from the craziness of Marrakech. Traffic and congestion and the throngs of people are outside the walls of this palace, and I feel like I’ve found some respite. I spend about an hour here, taking my time to study the beautiful architecture, colors, marble and wood carvings that adorn every inch of the palace. I find a spot to sit in the sun in the outdoor courtyard and soak in the silence. This is what I pictured Morocco to be like…this is the old Morocco.





I resist leaving because I know I have to re-enter mayhem. I consult the handy guidebook and make a plan. I will head to Badia Palace nearby next. I stroll through a courtyard and make my way to Badia. A few men on mopeds tell me I’m heading in the wrong direction. They are quite used to the number of tourists who inundate this city on a daily basis. One kind man stops, gets off his moped and walks with me, telling me the palace is closed until the afternoon, but he will show me a shortcut. “A shortcut to where?,” I think. I almost feel like I am given no choice but to follow. He says, “no money, just help you.” He leads me through the entrance of a hammam and on the other side, is the Mellah, the Jewish area of the old city.

He leaves me in the good hands of his friend, a spice seller, and before I know it, everything from saffron to sandalwood is being thrown under my nose. He then hands me a box with a pile of white crystals in it and I take a whif… the menthol smell brings me back to reality. “Mint,” he says, “the cocaine of Morocco.” I stroll on down the alleyway, trying my best to ignore the calls of other vendors, and the handfuls of tea being forced into my hands.

Just a handful of the many spices you will find in Marrakech

Although, I’ve enjoyed the olfactory journey through Marrakech’s collection of spices, I decide to head to the northeast side of the old city and visit Maison de la Photographie. I have heard good things about the collection of work here, and being a photography lover, I’m looking forward to seeing Marrakech’s history through pictures. The museum occupies a 3-floor riad and houses a collection of photographs from all over Morocco, dating back to as early as 1870. These include original photographs of the Berber people, the Jewish settlers, the African, as well as the local Arabic people.

On the top floor of the museum is a cafe as well as panoramic views of the old city. I savor the view, and the silence, before rejoining the masses below. I’m hungry and it’s getting quite late in the day, so I decide to head back to where I’m staying for a tagine and some tea. This means walking back through the winding alleyways to Djemaa el-Fnaa, passing all the shopkeepers and snakecharmers, tour guides and spice sellers. I’ve covered some distance today, and I feel tired, But I know it’s not just from the walking and the traveling but from the energy I’ve exerted just being here. Marrakech is revealing itself to be a place of craziness with pockets of hidden beauty. My outlook going forward is to savor that beauty as and when I find it.


Djemaa el-Fna
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Kauai, Lettuce Farm, long term travel, Travel, Uncategorized

The Farm

Somehow I have this knack of getting myself into hilarious (in hindsight) situations, and this is one of them. With a few extra days on my hand in Hawaii and not wanting to leave Kaua’i just yet, but while also watching my bank account dwindle down fast, I decided to do what a lot of backpackers and budget travellers do here…work/trade. I thought I’d found the answer to it all when I came across an ad at the local health food store for work/trade on a local lettuce farm. I called to inquire.

I spoke to Mary, who runs the farm, and I got the lay of the land. For 3 hours of work a day on the lettuce farm, I could pitch a tent, have use of a kitchen and outside shower. Sweet! Sign me up. So after a few days of fun with others at the hostel, I bought a 2-person tent for $20 off a fellow traveller and hitched a ride to Kilauea Farms. It was getting dark when i arrive and the rain was impending, so I was thankful that the tent was easy to set up, and that my new friend Kelly had offered to help. Fortunately I had sort of lucked out on this deal. I was able to set my tent up within a larger outside tent, and someone had left a mattress on wood beams, so when I put my tent on top of that, it was well, more comfortable than sleeping on the ground.


Kelly left to go back to the hostel, but we made plans to meet up the following afternoon for some more exploring of the island. I felt good knowing I wouldn’t be stranded there. I crawled into my tent and zipped up quick to keep out the other things that had made home within the larger tent- mosquitos, HUGE Cane spiders and god knows what else. I crawled into my sleep sheet and put my earplugs in. I could make it a week, couldn’t I?
It rained the entire night, and the sound of the water hitting the top tarp was loud even through my earplugs. It had cleared by the morning, and I awoke with the roosters and the sun, and luckily, the tent was dry. I made coffee and got chatting to Marco, a mid-40s Italian man who has been living on the farm for the past 3 months. He was a character, explained how he had maxed out all his credit cards, was in a mountain of debt and so was living off the land and the handouts from the local foodbank. It just got weirder from here.
In a yurt to the side of the farm and the main house lives Sarah, a 30 something single mother of 2 darling kids, Canyon (7) and Story (4). Ok, now I know I’m with full blown hippies. Sarah works on a couple of farms around the island. Story and Canyon show me around their yurt, and Canyon and I get to talking about his friends and I ask him who his best friend at school is and he looks at me and says, “I ain’t ever gone to school.” ?
I’m sort of dumbfounded at this point. I finish my coffee and Mary comes to find me and show me what needs to be done. I spend my morning planting lettuce seeds and mulching. I convince myself again that this is going to be a new, fun experience. Around 11:30, Kelly comes to collect me and we head to Ke’e Beach with a few others for a 6-hour coastal hike that takes us to isolated beaches and huge waterfalls. It was an awesome afternoon. I don’t want to go back to my tent.
The following day, I am up early and back out mulching the lettuce beds. I decide to stay put for the afternoon, relax, read, catch up on a few phonecalls (yes, there is at least cell phone reception). That afternoon I meet Will, the other farm dweller. He’s been in Hawaii for years. I’m not really sure what else these people do. They hop around from campsite to farm, from foodbank to any other handout they find. In an afternoon conversation, Will tells me he hasn’t been around cause he had to go spend 2 days in the slammer. Alrighty then.
At this point in time, I hear from my friend Katie, who I met my first day on Kaua’i. She mentions she just got a new apartment and offers for me to come and stay for a few days if the farm gets too much. I thank her and tell her I’m going to try and tough it out for a few more nights. I cook spaghetti for a few of us for dinner and retire to my tent to drink the single bottle of cheap red wine i smuggled in a few days earlier. It gets cold that night and I fall asleep to the sounds of roosters, pigs, cows, ducks and other foreign animals that I’m probably better off not knowing about.

I wake up feeling cold and tired and decide that I really don’t have anything to prove to anyone here. This sucks and I’m in Hawaii, so I’ll be damned if I spend another moment not enjoying it. I text Katie and graciously accept the offer of a sofa for a few nights. I do my morning mulching and chat with Will again, who offers me the use of his knife if i don’t feel safe at night. Yeah, it’s time to go!

I hitch to Kilaeua that afternoon and sit at a coffee shop and feel like I’ve re-entered a somewhat civilized world. I’m thankful I only have one more night at the farm. Katie and I meet up and cruise around the island to pick up a few things for her apartment. She drops me at the farm with the promise that she’ll collect me at 11 the following morning. She asks me if i just want to go with her then, and the knife comment pops in my head, but we decide it’s okay and I’ll just do my last morning of “work” and then go.
I sleep well knowing I’m getting outta there, and I find Mary the next day and tell her that I’m going to town to spend a few nights with a friend. What can I do but tell her the truth- it’s just a little too rustic for me. I plant a few more lettuce seeds that morning and pack my tent up. Katie comes to collect me and we drive away- me knowing i will never look at lettuce again the same way.
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Hawaii, long term travel, Travel

The North Shore Peep Show

From Honolulu, I arranged transport to the North shore, which is synonymous with surfing. I had decided to see more of Oahu than the frequently visited Waikiki and Honolulu and found home at Backpacker’s Hostel. It was only an hour’s drive from downtown Waikiki, but 30 minutes into the drive, and I was already feeling like I was on another island. Undeveloped land; lush, green, dense fields and forest; and rolling hills surrounded me. Ok, now I understand why people get the hell out of Waikiki.

I got checked in to my very sparse, but cheap, digs… a wooden cabin, with 3 rooms- 2 bunks each and a communal kitchen and bathroom. No one was around… they were all out surfing. Craig, who works at the hostel took me for a quick bike tour and showed me where the local grocery store was and then we went to check out the surf. I guess as a surfer, this is what you do. We stopped at about 5 beaches just to look at the waves. I watched in awe as surfers made it look so easy, and Craig got antsy to get in. When we went back to the hostel, he asked if I wanted to venture out for a session… Did I want to surf? Yes, I want to surf! But I’ve tried before, and it’s not easy, and I’m in Hawaii, next to the beach where the pipeline competition is surfed, and so on and so forth. But, I am in Hawaii…so, I grab a wetsuit and a board and despite impending rain, we climb in the van and head to Chun’s, which he promises has baby waves.
Well, I’ve come to a conclusion about surfing… it’s not so much the height of the wave as it is sometimes the width of a wave. A wave can sometimes not look that high, but when you are in it and on it, the thing can feel like a monster and take ages to either pass by you, or for you to ride it in. Craig was a good teacher, and never has someone told me to actually not try to stand up on a wave. So I spent the first few waves just riding them in on my belly, getting a feeling for the force, speed and momentum of the water. It was fun, a lot more fun than trying to stand up and getting tossed around in white water and undertow. But the conditions weren’t great, rain was on its way, and it was getting dark, so we headed in.
When I arrived back at Backpacker’s, everyone was home from their evening surf sessions, so it was meet and greet time. Dinner’s were being cooked, beers were being opened, and Cabin 2 seemed to be the place to be. So we all gathered around the table, listening to music, discussing Hawaii travel plans and talking surfing.
Before I knew it, I was getting a lesson on the mentality of surfing… it went a bit like this:
“Never think you are bigger than the ocean.”
“You have to be one with the wave.”
“Don’t think about it too much.”
After a couple glasses of wine, I was determined that I would get up the following morning and catch a good wave. Craig and I headed out early, but it was choppy, and after having to rescue a few stragglers who got caught in a strong current, we decided to head back in. I lounged on the beach for the afternoon and soaked in the North Shore… there’s not a whole lot going on here, besides surfing and smoking.
That evening, I set out for a run on the nicely shaded footpath. I passed the occasional runner and biker, but at each public lot, I passed the semi-nude surfer. It’s almost like these guys have no shame, and they will just drop their drawers anywhere. I guess no one ever taught them how to do a proper deck change. Maybe they are in too much of a hurry to get in to the water, but you would think they would give thought to the direction they are facing, and maybe face away from the road?? But no! So, if you are looking for free entertainment on the North Shore, just hit up the public footpath. You’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of semi-nude, shameless surfer boys!
Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Hawaii, long term travel, Oahu, Travel

On and Off the Oahu Tourist Track

Thursday morning dawned clear, so I took the opportunity to head to Pearl Harbor. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to spend in the southern part of the island, and I knew I couldn’t come to Oahu and not visit Pearl Harbor. Coby was kind enough to walk me in the direction of the public bus stations, and within 30 minutes, I had arrived at the museum entrance. I opted for the free tour of Pearl Harbor, which included the boat trip out to the USS Arizona, a film, a museum exhibit and a tour of the grounds. I spent a good 2 hours here and left with a better understanding Hawaii’s role in WWII.

From here, I made my way back to Honolulu and met up with Coby. Our plans were to hike Diamond Head, but the weather had different plans for us. Oahu is experiencing one of its wettest times in history, and unfortunately, this just happens to coincide with my first week here. After debating on whether or not it would clear up, Coby and I ended up hitting up Leonard’s, the famous Portugese bakery on island, to sample malasadas. These are like fried dough, and you can opt in for fillings like coconut or choclate, quite contradictory to hiking, but well worth the indulgence. We made our way back home, and promised to try for Diamond Head the following day….

The following day dawned wet and windy, so Coby and I hit up Chinatown and sampled Dim Sum at Shu Mei (which was EXCELLENT and about $7.00 each for a massive lunch) and then went to see a movie. That night, we tagged along with Ludmila to a warehouse party in Honolulu… we stayed up way too late and forced ourselves to get up the following morning to make something of the day. I was determined to hike Diamond Head, so after Coby’s homemade pancakes to cure us, we set out to catch the bus to the foot of Diamond Head Park. Well, after roaming around, and not being able to find the right bus stop, Ludmila called and said she and a friend were going to meet us and hike with us, so she picked us up on the way and we drove to the park. Finally, the rain had passed and the vog (volcanic smog) wasn’t too bad, so we hiked about 30 minutes up and got to see all of Waikiki and Honolulu as well as the Southeast coast.
At the foot of the park is a community college and small botanical garden with a great cactus collection- we visited that briefly and then headed for an authentic Hawaiian meal. We went to Ono’s in Waikiki and sampled LaoLao, Poke, Taro Root and other delicacies. The food was amazing and reminded me of being in Indonesia- the same basic, good flavors. And well deserved after our hike.

By Sunday, the weather was really improving and I started the day with a long run through Honolulu and Ala Moana Park. I was amazed at the number of people out and about- running, swimming, biking and beaching it, as well as the number of families preparing for their day long picnics and barbecues. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my time in Sydney and think that these people have struck a good life balance. For a city, there’s a pace of life here that’s not too crazy to keep up with, and despite the influence of tourism, the locals do a nice job of keeping their island their own. So while I may have had preconceived notions about Honolulu and Waikiki and while it may have felt like SoCal/America at times, there was a definite relaxed vibe to this place, that was (as I would come to find out later) purely Hawaiian.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Hawaii, long term travel, Oahu, Travel

Aloha, Couchsurfing and First Impressions

With only 2 months to hit the road with, I realized that my South America jaunt was going to have to wait, so I went back to the drawing board and started to think about where I could travel for a shorter period of time that was closer to home, warm and maybe not so draining as the third world destinations I seem to be frequenting as of late. Hawaii came to mind… a place I had always viewed as “too close to home” in past years, a place I viewed as “America,” “expensive” and “touristy.” But lately, it had been creeping up on my list of places to visit in the world. I had seen other travellers’ photos, heard stories of remote waterfalls, pristine beaches and friendly people. I wanted some warmth and some ease instead of the “roughing it” i’d become accustomed to, so I decided to spend my Spring thawing out on the Hawaiian Islands.

I managed to get a reasonably priced flight from Atlanta to Honolulu via Phoenix on US Airways and, after a solid day of traveling, arrived to the rainbow state. Ironically enough, after grabbing my bag and getting into a cab, a rainbow appeared in the sky… I took this as a good sign and tried to make conversation with my Taiwanese cab driver. I’d never seen a full rainbow so low in the sky, so I was pretty impressed. He wasn’t and said to me sarcastically, “you know this is why we’re called the rainbow state, right?” OK- i’ll try to keep my naivete to a minimum (but it was beautiful).
I had heard Hawaii was expensive, so I had set up my couchsurfing account before leaving Atlanta, and I had managed to set up a place to stay for the first 4 nights in Honolulu. I had also heard that it was best to get out of this touristy area as quick as possible, but with a free place to stay and 6 weeks to see the islands, I figured I should spend a few days here.
Ludmila, a Brazilian girl now living in Honolulu, was my host, and I was welcomed in typical Brazilian fashion- with very warm hospitality. Instead of arriving at a strangers’ house, I was greeted with a hug and made to feel at home at once. After getting settled in and cleaned up, Ludmila took me for a tour of Honolulu and Waikiki. We watched the sunset over the beach and saw the moon creep up over Diamond Head. Everyone was squeezing in their end of day workout- whether that was a run in Ala Moana, an ocean swim, a surf session, or paddle-boarding.
We drove through Waikiki and for a moment I felt like I was in Southern California, what with all the Gucci, Prada and Tiffany’s and high-rise hotels, but soon we passed through that and found ourselves surrounded by Hawaiian and Japanese restaurants- we made our way to a Japanese Grill for dinner, and Ludmila got adventurous with chicken hearts while I stuck with Terriyaki. I was beginning to fight time difference here, but I knew I was losing. The free couch was calling my name. We headed home and Ludmila whipped up some Capirhaina’s for us and her other roommate Coby (a former couchsurfer). We toasted to my first night in Hawaii, and strangely enough, I felt very much at home.