July 31, 2015
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The second half of our trip to Belize was spent in the Cayes (pronounced ‘keys’). We spent three nights on Caye Caulker and a last spontaneous night on Ambergris Caye.

To get to the Cayes from Belize City you have two options: water taxi or tiny airplane. We chose water taxi due to cost and time, and were pleased with our decision. The ride between the two cities is gorgeous, with clear blue/green water and tiny islands dotting the horizon. There are no cars on Caye Caulker, a tiny five-mile island, so everyone walks, bikes, or takes golf-cart taxis. We grabbed a taxi and headed to our cabana home found via Airbnb — it was a beauty and we both highly recommend staying with them.

We spent an entire overcast day snorkeling in the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the highlights of my life. The tour we booked had three stops, one of which was Shark Ray Alley, an area known for its large sting rays and nurse sharks. I’ve been determined to conquer my fear of sharks through education and exposure for years now so this was a huge step for me. Although I was terrified before I entered the water, clutching Cassandra’s leg and half sobbing, as soon as I was under the water with my goggles and could see the beauty of the animals around me, I felt peaceful and calm. We also stumbled upon two giant sea-turtles and I got within inches of one while it swam from surface to sea floor. We finished the day tired, tipsy from Belize’s national cocktail of fruit punch, and marveling at the world under the sea that we know very little about. How mysterious and magical it all seemed.

Other adventures in Caye Caulker: kayaking for a couple of hours early one morning to explore the mangroves lining the island, haggling with shop owners for blankets and bracelets, eating traditional fry jacks stuffed with eggs and cheese for breakfast each morning, swimming in The Split, a lazy afternoon of lying in the hammocks at the end of the pier at our cabana, and unexpectedly hearing my name shouted out as I biked past Chris and Kat (British friends we met in Guatemala; story to be told soon).

We loved Caye Caulker and never wanted to leave. Our last night we had booked an Airbnb in Belize City, but we both decided we’d rather have more island time. We cancelled our reservation, booked another spot in Ambergris Caye, and took a water taxi for our last island adventure. Ambergris Caye is much larger than Caye Caulker — there are cars and paved roads — and we were glad we had chosen to spend the majority of our time in Caye Caulker. We did have a delicious meal in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye, overlooking the ocean. Fresh fish, a gorgeous kale caesar salad, and the most divine chocolate cake for dessert. A meal fit for foodie queens, but after we went to the restaurant on a recommendation from our Airbnb host and saw only white people around us, we realized it was owned by a Canadian expat and served overpriced food that was nowhere near local.

Cassandra and I realized during our time on the Cayes that it is possible to go to Belize — to go anywhere, really — and have two very different experiences. It is possible to go to restaurants catering to tourists, overpriced and serving non-local food, to buy trinkets at souvenir shops, and to meet and spend time with only expats or other travelers. It’s much harder to find the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with five tables selling traditional cuisine, to go into the dimly lit shops, and to have long conversations with locals about their country and what is really going on. And yet, how much more rewarding is the experience when we as travelers dip deeper and seek a true experience and understanding of the cultures in which we immerse ourselves for a brief time. Our best memories of Belize were the ones in which we were eating traditional food, talking to Belizeans about the hard parts of their history and current living (colonization, heavy logging, the crack epidemic in the 80s, etc.), and taking in the natural beauty of a new landscape. Even with a few missteps and disappointing touristy meals, Cassandra and I left Belize with a deeper knowledge of Belize itself, its people, the earth and its plants and animals, and of life itself, I think. I don’t think there is any better way to leave a vacation.

Belize   Uncategorized
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July 12, 2015
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A few months ago I took a week-long trip to Belize with my favorite travel partner Cassandra. Other than visiting back and forth we hadn’t traveled together since we studied abroad in Tanzania in 2010, so this was an exciting trip to plan. After choosing the area based solely on a spectacular National Geographic Belize itinerary I had lusted over for months, we planned a week of outdoor adventures throughout Belize and a bit of Guatemala.

Belize is a small country with an even smaller population, roughly 340,000. All the people are clustered around cities and small towns leaving the jungle (most of the non-coast of the country) largely untouched. We learned about the colonization of Belize by Britain — it used to be part of British Honduras — until its peaceful independence in 1981. It’s one part Latin America, one part Caribbean, and one part Mayan, making the people a really beautiful combination of ethnicities. I was surprised to learn that most Belizeans speak at least three languages — English, Creole, and either Mayan, Spanish, or both. I was most impressed by the intense love Belizeans have for their country and history. Each person I met was happy to talk for hours about the food, the people, the history, the plant- and animal-life, and their travels throughout Central America and the southern United States. I could point to any tree, flower, bird, or bug and a Belizean could tell me all about it. It touched me and helped me realize how little I know about my region and how badly I want to learn about it.

The first half of our trip was spent in the western part of Belize. Our home base was San Ignacio, a lovely, walkable town with access to what felt like a million things to see and do. We booked a couple tours through our hotel (the Rainforest Haven Inn, I highly recommend it) and I found a few others in guidebooks or through TripAdvisor. We went canoeing through ancient caves where Mayans performed sacrificial rituals; rode horses to and explored Xunantunich, an abandoned Mayan city; went cave tubing through a 65-million-year old cave and swam in a lake deep inside the cave that Mayans believed was holy water (I cried); and we stopped by the Belize Zoo, maybe my favorite zoo in the world (if you’re generally opposed to zoos like me definitely read more about their project). We ate some incredible fresh fish and local fruit juices, curries, and the standard Belizean meal of rice and beans. I bought a mug from the tiny breakfast spot we walked to at 6:30 every morning we were in San Ignacio.

Truthfully I was most excited for the second part of our trip — snorkeling! kayaking! floating in the ocean! — but looking back some of the moments in San Ignacio were my favorite. Swimming in that cave moved me in a way I’ll never be able to reconstruct and I’m almost glad to have not had my camera at the time. It feels like a sacred moment shared between Cassandra, our guide, and me, all alone in that cathedral-like cave. One evening Cass and I watched the sunset from our hammocks on the roof of our hotel, and I’ll never forget the breeze, the violently pink sky, and my full-body peace. I journaled every evening about the bits of wisdom I gleaned from all the people I met and the things they taught me about how to live in this world — what is beauty, what is community, what is living from the earth, what is life!

This is a sampling of the many photos I took while we were in and around San Ignacio. I can’t recommend that town or this country enough — add it to your travel list and start dreaming. Also, if you should ever find yourself in this wonderful place, be sure to try fresh tamarind juice. That shit is magic.

Belize   Uncategorized
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May 28, 2015
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Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya are known for being the space inhabited by the Maasai. On my study abroad trip I had the opportunity to meet with and learn about many Maasai individuals, which was an incredible experience. Many Maasai have left their villages and live in Arusha, the city in which I lived while I was in Tanzania, so I met many while I was dancing at our favorite bar on Thursday nights, perusing tiny stalls and shops, or just walking around town. We also spent an afternoon visiting one of their villages and learning more about their culture during an epic camel safari on Mount Meru, which is when these photos were taken.

A far-from-nuanced description: Maasai dress in bright sheets, often red, and colorful, beaded jewelry. They use cattle as their main food source, and they build amazing, circular wooden structures to protect their villages and cattle from lions — they are well known as warriors and lion-killers, although the practice is dwindling. Another beautiful piece of their culture and history is their tradition of music and dance, which was a sight to behold.

We also visited an NGO dedicated to educating Maasai women and men on female genital mutilation. I had learned about FGM earlier in college but did not realize the prevalence for the practice in this particular community. Maasai culture is patriarchal in nature, and circumcision is an important rite of passage for both women and men; women who refuse FGM are ostracized by their communities. There are many Maasai individuals, nonprofits, and NGOs that are working to eradicate the practice, and it is technically illegal both in Tanzania and Kenya. To learn more visit here.

I feel very lucky to have met, danced with, and learned from some of the Maasai women and men near Arusha. The United States is built on slavery and genocide — we have done our best to destroy our indigenous populations and stamp out the many African traditions originally brought over by slaves. It is important, if possible, to experience cultures so ancient and traditions so sacred. To stand in awe and wonder at life so rich and sustaining. To walk among Maasai individuals while I lived in Tanzania for a few months was an honor, and one of my most enriching experiences.

Tanzania   Uncategorized
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April 8, 2015
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A few weeks before I returned home to Tennessee from my study abroad trip to Arusha, Tanzania, a program-mate Arielle and I took a four-day trip to Mombasa, Kenya. It was our vacation from our vacation.

In a move completely unlike me, I didn’t do any planning. A few grad students in our program had gone to Mombasa months before so I got the names of two hostels and one restaurant and wrote them on a white, square napkin. I wrote the phone numbers of the hostels on the bottom. We bought our bus tickets and left.

Arielle and I rode the 8-hour bus from Arusha to Mombasa, and after getting off the bus we immediately bought our return tickets home for a few days later. We then took a taxi to our first hostel in Mombasa. We hated it. Its exterior was gorgeous but it had a very strange vibe and the lack of air conditioning made the night unbearable. Arielle got a stomach bug from dinner and spent the majority of the night in the dirty water-filled bathroom. It was completely miserable.

The next morning we woke up determined to have a good day. We made our way to a shopping plaza and had a huge American-style breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and fruit. I hadn’t had food like that in months; it tasted like heaven. After breakfast we headed to the Nyali Beach District where we snuck onto the grounds of a gorgeous hotel. We sunbathed and swam in their pools all morning — there was even a swim-up bar in one of the pools. We felt like honeymooners.

After lunch at the hotel we took a bus to Haller Park, a gorgeous nature park right on the coast. At times it felt like we had the place to ourselves, and animals were wandering around without enclosures. We hand-fed monkeys and giraffes, watched the crocodile and hippo feedings, and held leopard-print tortoises and millipedes (well, I did – Arielle wasn’t into touching). I highly recommend Haller Park to anyone visiting this area of Kenya. Only $10 and definitely worth the time and money!

That night, in a wild and dangerous story Arielle and I will never share, we made it to Stilts Backpackers, the most wonderful hostel in which I’ve ever stayed. Each room is an individual treehouse right in the jungle. I had grown used to seeing monkeys so it didn’t surprise me to see them the next morning, but it was a shock to open my eyes in the morning and see two monkey eyes staring back at me. Before Arielle woke up I journaled on the porch, and as I journaled the monkeys crowded around me, watching me and, I soon learned, plotting ways to steal my things and cause general mayhem. The list of items stolen by the monkeys is long, but my favorite story involves one monkey who really wanted my pack of Skittles. As I ate I placed them on the table for him to take, but he wanted the full bag, which he quickly snatched from the table 6 inches in front of me. He watched me as he ate each individual candy, throwing the bag and licking his fingers after he was done. When we came back at the end of the day they had unzipped my backpack, eaten my bag of Pringles, closed them back up, and defecated in the middle of my bag. I wouldn’t have known but for the smell.

Our last full day was spent lounging on Diani Beach at Forty Thieves Bar & Restaurant across the street from the treehouses. We sipped apple martinis and watched the camels walk past on the beach. The water was clear and warm and there were wooden benches with rope and pillows strewn across the beach. We took two and napped all day, pausing only to eat and take quick dips in the water. It was one of the most relaxing days I’ve ever had.

Despite the food poisoning, the harrowing night-time adventure of which we do not speak, and our bus breaking down on the way back to Arusha, Kenya is, in my mind, one of the most perfect trips I’ve taken. We managed to find our way around a new city in a new country with only my napkin and broken Swahili (I still have that napkin). There are so many human interactions during those four days, meeting people on ferries and on buses and in hostels and on the beach, that still make me laugh or make my heart swell. Even when we became extremely lost late at night with no idea where to go or what to do, people wanted to help us. People wanted us to find our way. Do you hear the metaphor? The people of Kenya taught it to me.

Kenya   Uncategorized
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April 2, 2015
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The whole reason we traveled to Uganda was to raft the Nile. I was terrified.

The beginning of the rafting adventure didn’t bode well for me. I was terrified of river water, terrified of crocodiles, terrified of flipping and hitting my head and drowning. Right when we boarded the raft our guide went through some instructions and chose me to model them. “Jump into the river, you’re going to demonstrate,” he said to me. “No,” I said. “Yes. Go on.” “Oh my god.”

I jumped in and thought, this is it. A crocodile is going to snatch my leg and pull me under. But I paddled around the murky waters and demonstrated how to let the guides in kayaks help us back to the raft if we were separated. I was still terrified.

We started down the river and not five minutes later our raft flipped over a rapid for the first (and definitely not last) time that day. I flew into the air, crashed into the water, and when I tried to surface for air my head banged into the bottom of the raft — I was stuck in the water below the enormous, heavy raft. I panicked for the three seconds it took to get out from under the raft and again thought, this is it. Death is upon me.

We flipped a few more times, each less scary and more exhilarating than the last. We screamed and laughed and I felt so acutely alive.

Mid-day we stopped for lunch on a little forested island in the middle of the river. I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having and how far away the fear had fled. We continued our journey down the river, the rapids exciting and raucous and electrifying. As we were going through some minor rapids, the right side of the raft – my side of the raft – bumped and the three of us on that side flew into the air and landed in the water. The raft sailed past, carried by the rapids, and the other girls in the water floated in the direction of the raft. I found myself just out of the path of the rapids and my body drifted away into the shallow reeds, the raft growing smaller and smaller in the distance. I couldn’t believe it. I was all alone in the Nile, now in the shallow, still water where the crocodiles lived. There was very little sound. I could hear my heavy breathing and I could feel my skin tingling out of sheer terror.

Needless to say, I survived. We also skinny dipped at one point, saw an enormous Monitor lizard swimming towards us, and one member of our group lost her bikini bottoms in a rapid. At the end of the trip I felt like a new person. When I think about this day, it is still one of the best days of my life. I remember the color of the trees and the earth and the water so vividly. I remember the way the air smelled. I remember the emotion in my stomach, a mixture of fear and excitement that evolved throughout the day, the excitement slowly overcoming the fear. It was, in a word, remarkable.

Uganda   Uncategorized
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