The Nomadic Life The United States Travel

How Lyft Inspired My Most Creative Date Night in San Francisco


Like many San Franciscans, I don’t own a car. I bike, walk, and take public transportation or Lyft almost everywhere. Typically, this means I end up staying within a mile radius of my house (the Mission, Castro, and Noe Valley) even though I know the city has so much more to offer.

So one night, after a flurry of referrals that landed me 13 Lyft ride credits that were all expiring within a month, Jon and I decided to pop our Mission date bubble and venture out to all the areas of San Francisco that we never go out in.

When Friday night rolled around, we knew all the things to do here, so left our Mission home for the ultimate San Francisco date night, powered by a series of Lyft rides.

Stop One: Drinks and Appetizers at Two Sisters Bar and Books in Hayes Valley


Our first stop was in neighboring Hayes Valley at Two Sisters Bar and Books for a couple of cocktails and an appetizer to start off the night.

Though on the pricier side, they do have a solid happy hour deal and a cozy, bookish vibe that the bibliophile in me couldn’t resist. The bar was started, as the name suggests, by two sisters who were inspired by “an incredible bookstore in Krakow; a quintessential coffee-house in Vienna; [and] a neighborhood bar in Paris.” Once we entered, it all made sense.

Unfortunately, we arrived a little too late for happy hour (whoops!) and at 7 on a Friday, all of the seats were already taken by a hip-yet-artsy crowd. Still, the ambiance was as promised, so we settled in to a corner in the back, ordered up a couple of cocktails, pickles, and chicken wings.

The low lighting and patterned wallpaper felt romantic and the cocktails were delicious. Like many of the neighboring bars and restaurants in Hayes, it had a decidedly European (and non-Mission) feel to it.

“Man, the bartenders here are just so… nice,” Jon said as he put down his empty glass and I took out my phone to call our second ride of the night.

Stop Two: Dinner at Shanghai Dumpling King in Outer Richmond


If you like Chinese food, San Francisco has a lot of great and authentic options, several of which are in the Richmond. It’s a far trek for Mission-dwelers who are happy to have the cultishly famous Mission Chinese as their go to, but worth it if you’re craving one thing in particular: soup dumplings. I’d never had one before (ever!) so, in the spirit of trying new things, we headed to Shanghai Dumpling King for our main course.

Ironically, we caught a ride with an SFU college student who lived in the area and was saving money to teach English in Shanghai after the semester ended. Jon chatted about the semester he spent studying there. Call it a sign if you want, I’ll let it be a “mood builder”.

After a conversation filled, twenty minute drive, we arrived at Shanghai Dumpling King and joined the line of dumpling fans to get a table.

“It’s a 15 minute wait,” the server told us — an unusually short wait time for a popular San Francisco dinner spot. Even better, the line moved fast and efficiently, and before we were even seated the server asked us for our order. Jon took charge and ordered in Chinese.

“What did you get?” I asked.

“Soup dumplings… and something else. I have no idea what I ordered, but the guy recommended them so I just said yes.” He said.

We’d figure out later that he had ordered a classic Shanghai style pork dumpling (more than fine by me!) The food came fast. I giggled as Jon taught me how to properly pick up a soup dumpling, bite off the top, and pour sauce into it. Within 10 minutes, we’d hungrily gobbled down a dozen and a half dumplings and were ready to move on to stop three before it closed.

Stop Three: After Dinner Drinks at Cliff House at Ocean Beach


Which brings us to a San Francisco classic: drinks at the Cliff House, a former amusement park, now restaurant and bar, that overlooks the Pacific Ocean on — you guessed it — a cliff. We normally pass it on long bike rides but since it’s so far away never considered it as a potential spot to grab a drink at.

Unlike our first two stops of the night, we didn’t go there for the food and drinks per say, but rather its reputation for being a San Francisco landmark and its view of the Pacific. Even with the sun long ago set, we could see the dark waves crashing onto the shore below our window side table.

Full of dumplings, we sat and sipped a glass of Merlot while a jazz band set up stage. Jon began looking up the history of the Cliff House online.

“It’s the same guy who owned Sutro Baths,” Jon said. I tried to imagine how it must have looked and felt to be here back in its original form.

Not long after, the band began playing old 20s classics, further solidifying the old-timey atmosphere of the place. I felt a world away from home.

We felt even more remote when, after finishing our Merlots, we realized we were so far away from other people that it would take a full 10 minutes for our driver to arrive. It was time to start heading back in the direction of the Mission.

Stop Four: A Scenic View (sort of) at Twin Peaks


However, we didn’t exactly choose a less remote part of town. Before rounding off our impromptu culinary tour of San Francisco with dessert, we wanted to try and catch a glimpse of the city at night.

“Where ya headed?” our driver asked.

Twin Peaks,” we said and got in.

Quickly, we had abandoned the flat expanse of the ocean for a steep ascent up to the second tallest hill in San Francisco (quite a title in this city). Neither of us had been there at night before and had high hopes of looking out over a glistening, nighttime, cityscape.

However, as we got to the top a heavy fog kept our driver from seeing too far in front of him and us from seeing what would have otherwise been a beautiful view of the city (damn you, Karl!) Nevertheless, we had made it so we dutifully stepped out, shivered for a minute while staring into haze of lights we could see before getting back in the car.

“Where to now?” Our driver asked.

“Foreign Cinema, in the Mission.” We said.

Stop Five: Dessert at Foreign Cinema in Mission

Foreign Cinema

Of course, however stuck in our little neighborhood we may get, there’s still so much to explore just around our house, so many places we’ve yet to try that are right around the corner.

For me at least, one of these places was Foreign Cinema, a bar / restaurant known for the giant movie screen backdrop that plays old and foreign films while diners eat and chat.

We ordered our final round of drinks and a cheese plate for dessert.

“The food here isn’t that good,” Jon said. (To be fair, Foreign Cinema’s ratings are good, I’ve still never eaten anything there, and Jon has unusually high standards — so, if you’re a Foreign Cinema fan… or employee… I apologize.)

“Well, I guess you can’t mess up a cheese plate, right?” I said.

Food quality aside, I liked the space. Tables are set up in a backyard garden to the backdrop of its large movie screen. Heat lamps keep the outdoor patio warm on cool San Francisco nights while strings of lights give the space a truly warm and welcoming air. It was a refreshing place to end the night.

Stop Six: Home.

Dolores Park, Mission, San Francisco

Feeling tired, tipsy, and a little lazy, we called our final Lyft to take us the final mile home… and sleep.

It’s now been a few months since our little adventure, and it’s still one of my favorite memories of San Francisco so far. This is mainly because it was one of the few times I dedicated to trying to see as much of it as possible in a short amount of time. I was exploring my city as I would any other new city in the world.

Travel doesn’t always have to take us to some faraway, exotic place. Sometimes, it just means driving a few miles down the road to a new bar, or restaurant, or lookout point. As long as you’re open to discovering it, there’s so much to explore in your city. And if you don’t already have it, sign up for Lyft now, grab a couple of free rides, and let me know how you used them to see something or somewhere new!

Photo credits: Christian Arballo

Peace Corps The Nomadic Life The United States

A Year of Returning Home from the Peace Corps

Reintegration after the Peace CorpsSince returning home from the Peace Corps in December 2013, I had just barely wrapped my head around all the new iPhone apps and food choices at my disposal by the time 2014 rolled in.

I’ve also been absent from The Nomadic Beat. So with the first month of 2015 almost to a close, here’s a recap on one year spent re-integrating after returning home from the Peace Corps.

What did that process look like exactly? What was re-integrating into American life and culture like? Read on.

Omg Food, Food, Food!


Somewhere around July, I posted on Facebook “I will never be over burritos.” It was one of my most liked and commented-on posts of the year. “How can you ever get over burritos?” One friend replied. TRUE point, friend. TRUE POINT.

Also, that was July — almost half a year after I returned. Yes, I spent most of my initial days indulging in nostalgic cravings for raspberries, asparagus, burritos, good cheese and beer. And yes, it has tapered a bit, but are burritos old and non-exciting yet? Nope — not a bit.

Toilets are Awesome

I will never take a flush toilet for granted again. Never, ever, ever. That, and running water.

Even though I live in a small studio apartment with a mini fridge and a double hot plate, I know what I could be living in instead (a pink dollhouse with no water and a pit latrine, that’s what!). So I love my place. I appreciate it for those everyday luxuries (yes, luxuries) most of us take for granted.

Trying to Understand Where My Old and New Self Met

California StyleI was gone for almost two and a half years in my early to mid-20s; an age when most people try to define their identities as adults. Not teenagers, not college students, but adults.

I didn’t miss out on this development, but it happened abroad. This is pretty significant for two reasons:

First, I felt more aware of it. When I initially returned, I gravitated towards old habits, but they didn’t feel right. I’d go to the same clothing stores I frequented before, and suddenly feel too “old” for them. I’d go to old favorite bars, coffee shops, and restaurants and feel out of place.

I’d look at a menu and quickly identify my usual, but not feel up to it. I was constantly thinking “well, Old Jessie would have had the caprese sandwich, but New Jessie wants a burger with avocado.”

Returning from living abroad forced me to experience all these changes in tastes and lifestyle preferences all at once, rather than gradually. That made me more aware.

Secondly, this meant that I had to reconcile this Old-Jessie-New-Jessie identity crisis. At times, it meant some awkward moments (and outfits), but overall it’s been a fun experience in new discovery.

Annoying Everyone Around Me with “This One Time in Peace Corps” Stories

Annoyed Jon

I know, I know, I know. I talk about Peace Corps and Madagascar waaay too much. I’m probably annoying my friends, co-workers, and boyfriend with all my “this one time in Madagascar…” stories.

I don’t mean to talk about it so much, and I’m not trying to one up anyone when asked “so, what did you do for New Years last year?” It kind of just comes out, like word vomit.

An RPCV friend of mine, Karina, put our side of this well. “For us, it’s just our most recent two years of our lives. Our friends might be talking about this great party they went to last summer, and we are too — they just happened to take place in another country.”

So please be understanding, friends. I don’t want to treat the last two and a half years of my life like it’s either an empty, untalked about void, or an obnoxious conversation piece.

Remembering How to Be a “Real Adult”

It’s weird, but there are some basic life skills I feel like I just simply forgot after two and half years of not having to use them.

For example, it took me a moment to remember how scheduling a dentist appointment and using insurance worked again (since Peace Corps takes care of all of this for us). Banking, renting cars, navigating public transportation — all of this I had to dig back into my mind for.

I’m being totally honest when I say, this time last year, I would have been thrown off by the question “what’s your group number, miss?” if I had attempted to file an insurance claim. W$#!G%# — my what?

Feeling Behind on Life

Glass of wine

Pretty quickly after getting back from Peace Corps, in February 2014, I started a new job in Berkeley, California. I was 25 at the time and, quite frankly, just stoked to have more than $200 / month coming in to my bank account.

Then, I met other 24 – 26 year olds in the San Francisco Bay area. They had been working for prestigious companies for years, making great salaries and benefits, and — sometimes — living fairly expensive lifestyles.

Okay, okay, okay — I am at the epicenter of the tech boom, but that’s not an excuse to write off this sentiment. Other volunteers felt behind because they didn’t have so much as a boyfriend, when all their friends were getting married. We didn’t have cars, babies, and our two years of Peace Corps isn’t always looked at as real experience by all employers (psh, their loss!)

Back to the point: my accomplishments as a PCV were pushed in the back of my mind, and I suddenly felt behind in life — especially career wise.

I know it’s not true, but it’s hard not to feel this way. Throughout the year, I’ve had to actively remind myself of what’s truly valuable in life (experiences and happiness, not possessions and titles), that I love my job, and why the fuck should we feel so urgent about getting a job directly after college?

Getting Used to All this New Technology

Technology changes rapidly, so it was the most noticeable difference in American culture circa 2011 versus American culture circa 2014. Otherwise, it was just new trends (which we had been closely watching via Pinterest anyway…)

I came back into a world that predominantly used smartphones. Tons of cafes and shops started using iPads for checking out customers (I’d never seen that!). Online dating had become more socially acceptable and casual, and so, so, so many things had become digitized.

Apps like Uber, Lyft, and Tinder had not been created, but soared in popularity since I left. For about two weeks I had no idea what my friends were talking about when they said “I’m going to call an Uber” or “they met on Tinder.” I still remember leaning over and whispering to a fellow Madagascar RPCV and asking “pssst, what’s Tinder??” Thank goodness for friends, right?

Here’s to 2015!

Reintegration is different for everyone, and I tend to feel less nostalgic for my Peace Corps experience than some of my friends (it was great, but I love my life now too!).

Regardless, for everyone who has spent this past year reintegrating into American life after Peace Corps, I’m sure it’s been a year of reverse culture shock, identity crises, and burrito binging. To all of you, here’s to entering 2015 feeling more at ease in our every day lives than this time last year!

Now, who wants to work off those burrito binges with me? Ugh.

The Nomadic Life Travel

If Travel Destinations Were Lovers…

I heart Seattle

This is a post I’ve been contemplating for a few months. It’s still not perfect, so comments and critiques are greatly welcome.

Have you ever tried thinking of the places you’ve traveled to the way you would think of an ex-lover?

I spent an afternoon thinking of it once, and decided that if places were men, Seattle would be the one I fell head over heels for; the one with whom it was love at first sight. Madagascar would be an arranged marriage — an analogy that I think most Peace Corps volunteers can relate to with their country of assignment. Much like an arranged marriage, we have little decision in who/where we get paired up with, but like any marriage, struggle through the bad and revel in the good to make it work. I’d be interested to hear what others come up with.

Besides it simply being fun to think of your favorite travel destinations in the same nostalgic way you’d conjure up a great memory of a friend or lover who has (sadly or not so sadly) disappeared into the vast vault of our pasts, there are similarities in the way we have relationships with places and with people.

Considering how many pieces have been written about “a love affair with Paris/Italy/Bali, etc.” this notion isn’t too radical or new. I’m not the first to think of it, and unfortunately I can’t provide you with this great quote on the topic that I dug out of a book once. Maybe when I find that scrap of paper I scribbled it down on, I’ll insert it here, but in the meantime, I’ll try to summarize and expand on that great author’s point:

The relationships we have with places mirrors those we have with humans. We love them, we connect with them, we fight with them. They push us to grow and experience things outside of our comfort zones. Places, like people, have personalities — often because of the people inhabiting them — and either that personality strikes something within you and begs you to create a deeper connection, or leaves little lasting impression, like a stranger on the train.

I’m sure all of us who have traveled have that one place where, when mentioned, we can’t control our smiles. I’m sure all of us have that place that makes us overly excited when the conversation turns to “the best coffee shops in Seattle” or whatever your equivalent may be. And like lovers and friends, each individual place has a different effect on us, brings out a different part of our personalities, and inspires us each in its own unique way. On the other hand, there are those places that are like a bad friendship, where you felt your soul being sucked out of your skin and slowly shrivel up. For me those places are the “bus depots” of the world (the strongest of which is an actual bus depot in Antananarivo, Madagascar, with whom I had a strong, hateful relationship with, like an unhealthy relationship you can’t end because you’re too dependent on each other…)

Anywho, I’m posting this today, after a too long hiatus, because (and I kind of loathe to acknowledge it) it’s Valentine’s Day. I’m a Valentine’s Day hater, the concept is contrived and cheesy romantic gestures make me vomit a little, but hater or not, today’s a very relevant day for this post. It’s a relevant day for us to think not just of the people we love/have loved, but the places too.

So let me ask you all: If places were lovers, where would be your biggest love? Which place was your greatest romance?

The Nomadic Life Travel

10 Destinations Worthy of A Traveler’s Bucket List

Daydreaming about travel is almost as fun as traveling for real. Seriously, there have been scientific studies on the topic. It’s also the driving force behind some wonderful blog posts and articles in the travel blogosphere. NY Times has a beautifully done article titled 52 Places to Go in 2014; Afar Magazine gives its readers travel inspiration regularly, but they too have compiled their own (shorter) “Where to Go in 2014” list. Other sites target their lists to more specific types of travelers, like Go Overseas’ Best Places to Learn Spanish and Matador Network’s new book featuring 101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die.

This list, however, is my bucket list. It’s where I would go if money, political conflict, and time were no issue. I didn’t choose these destinations for being up and coming destinations to travel to in 2014, or because they are great places to teach abroad. I chose them because, for each their own reason, these are the destinations that give me travel inspiration. I hope they inspire you as well!

1. Beirut, LebanonThanks to Alixanaeuphoria

Currently, there is a travel advisory against all travel to certain areas of Beirut — but that doesn’t change the fact that Beirut has been high on my travel bucket list since I was a teenager, eating chicken shawarma for lunch every other day while my peers lined up for Taco Bell. While Lebanese food alone (hummus, ftayer, baba ghanoush, makdous, shawarma, baklava…) is reason enough to travel to Lebanon, Beirut also has a reputation for fantastic nightlife and plenty of cafes to munch mezze and smoke water pipes in by its beautiful seafront. Someday, Beirut… someday…

2. Patagonia, Argentina/ChilePhoto Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Patagonia is an awe-inspiring region full of natural wonders and opportunity for adventure. The massive region of Patagonia (from the word patagones) sits in both Chile and Argentina, and stretches down to Tierre del Fuego — the end of South America and launching point to Antarctica. Its natural features are as diverse as the area is large. It includes jutting mountains, glaciers leftover from the last ice age, and a vast, foreboding desert (believed to be the seventh largest in the world). For outdoor enthusiasts, rock climbers, hikers, horse-back riders, and anyone looking for adventure with one of the world’s most scenic backdrops, Patagonia is (supposedly) a must.

3. Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca by Hi Tricia

Why visit Oaxaca, Mexico? Well, for the culture and cheese-drenched food, of course. For a long time, I overlooked Mexico as a travel destination, while hypocritically chasing taco trucks and drinking horchata, until someone brought up Oaxaca. Travel in Oaxaca, apparently, is different than a jaunt in one of its beachy, spring-break loving neighbors. While there is no shortage of beach in this southwestern Mexican state, the diversity, colonial architecture, lively Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and cuisine are what really make it worth visiting for more intrepidly-minded travelers.

4. Waitomo, New Zealand

Time and time again, New Zealand pops up on all sorts of “must-see” destination lists. It’s safe, beautiful, and offers attractions that appeal to a variety of travel personalities. 10-year old me, however, had no idea or concern about these factors. All I knew about New Zealand was: glow worms; caves full of glow worms. Fifteen years later, being surrounded on all sides by glittery glow worms still sounds awesome. On New Zealand’s north island, in Waitomo, visitors can do just that.

5. Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is just one of those places that lives in the hearts of all travelers deeply affected with wanderlust. It’s visually appealing, with windy markets full of colorful goods just begging you to get lost in. The food is fresh and fantastic. It’s cheap. And it’s just different enough from the West to hold the allure of “otherness”. Maybe it’s beginning to be a bit more beaten-path, but who cares?

6. Portugal

From Porto to Lisbon and every small town in between, there are so many reasons to visit Portugal, and so many reasons why this little Western European country is far too underrated as a travel destination. It’s cheap (more importantly, the wine and port are cheap), photogenic, easy to get around, and has an endlessly scenic, craggy coastline and sunny beaches. Also, El Camino de Santiago has a route that passes through. Seriously, I’m this close to throwing my hiking shoes and a wine key into my backpack and hoping on a plane to Lisbon now.

7. Cuba

Cuba has long held fascination for travelers because of its caught-in-another-era personality. But Cuba’s opening up — slowly but surely — and it looks like it is soon in for a change. Catching a glimpse of Cuba before it lifts the embargo and embraces a modern transformation is the main motivation to visit Cuba now, but of course not the only reason. There’s also the rum, the cigars, the hot weather, the people, and music. Seriously, Cuba has produced some talented musicians (I loved Leo Brower’s music enough to tattoo “Una Dia di Noviembre” on my right arm) and thanks to them, some beautiful songs.

8. Zion National Park, Utah

Though Zion is Utah’s oldest and most popular park, it doesn’t get as much talk time as bigger names like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Too bad, because it’s probably just as gorgeous and impressive as either of those. Among much else, the park is known for its massive pink, cream, and red sandstone cliffs, a unique combination of wildlife and geology, and of course numerous hiking trails, rock climbing opportunities, and even some spelunking. But mostly, it’s a sunrise on top of one of those sun-colored cliffs that I’m after.

9. Kyoto, Japan

Beirut, Oaxaca, Istanbul, and now, Kyoto? There’s definitely a travel to eat trend going on with this list and  during a recent trip to Tokyo, Kyoto got on my bucket list for being the culinary capitol of Japan. Tokyo already had me sold on Japanese food, so lets see if a trip to Kyoto will leave my friends rolling their eyes and muttering “would you shut up about Obanzai Ryori already?” Of course, food isn’t the only reason to visit Kyoto. It was Japan’s capitol for over 1,000 years and now boasts a unique meld of the modern and hip, nestled next to an impressive amount of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a still working geisha district.

10. Seychelles

Every wanderlust list has to include at least one cliche, lounge by the beach in a “tropical paradise” sort of destination. Seychelles is this list’s cliche palm-trees-and-sun destination. But with so many other places in the world to go if you want to sit under a palm tree on the beach, why Seychelles? Well, this cluster of 115 islands off the coast of Africa may be growing more and more accessible to travelers, but it’s still off the beaten path enough to lack the crowds more well known beach destinations attract. The costliness of visiting Seychelles probably helps with this, but like I said before, these are the destinations I would go to if money was no object, right?

What are your bucket list travel destinations?

Japan The Nomadic Life Travel

Traveling Solo in Tokyo


On a whim, I traveled solo to Tokyo this past December on the last leg of a three month trip. With no price difference on American Airlines to have a two hour layover or a five day layover in Tokyo on a flight from Hanoi to Washington DC, I just had to take advantage of this essentially free flight. Long stopovers such as this are a great travel hacker tool, and although a stop in Japan would be pricer than schlepping around Southeast Asia, ultimately, it was still a thrifty way to see one last place.

If Japan is Anything Like Japan Airlines, then I’m Already in Love…

My impressions of Japan start at the airport. First of all, because of a super-spacey mental lapse on my part, of which I’m still kicking myself in the butt for, I showed up a day late for my flight (don’t judge). I realized this about 10 minutes away from the airport in Hanoi and promptly started to inwardly panic, faced with the dreaded scene of how an African (and most likely, Vietnamese) airline would handle this: counter attendant scolds me, then ushers over someone else to consult my predicament in a language I don’t understand.

The attendant, somehow sensing my anxiety, smiled again and said “it’s going to be OK”

Second person walks away and comes back with two other people to consult. The four of them keep discussing. Meanwhile, the line behind me is getting angry and finally they send me to some dark corner of the airport to settle the matter, where again, the counter attendant needs to consult everyone in the vicinity before deciding my fate, which is ultimately: buy a new ticket for tomorrow’s flight.

Fortunately, this was Japan Airlines. No one consulted anyone else, an emergency plan for idiots like me apparently part of the protocol. They just smiled and asked very apologetically if I wouldn’t mind paying a $100 flight change fee.

“Perfect!” I exclaimed. The attendant, somehow sensing my anxiety, smiled again and said “it’s going to be OK”. I hadn’t even left the airport yet, and I was already in love with Japan.

Getting Lost in Asakusa


Fast forward to Tokyo. The city was just waking up. Businessmen with sleek suitcases sipped espresso at the airport train station while I waited. Once on the train, neatly stylish women in long skirts and boots, or young girls in school uniforms filled the seats as we sped towards Tokyo. Everyone seemed preoccupied, texting, listening to music, reading, or jotting down notes in small notebooks. Even with all the movement, it felt so peaceful.

The train let me off in Asakusa, a neighborhood outside the center of Tokyo most well known for it’s attraction, the Buddhist temple Sensō-ji, and narrow maze of shopping streets.

Armed with confusing directions from the hostel and an address that Google Maps didn’t understand (Japanese addresses are organized “district-block-building” and look like “10-5-8”) I got terribly lost and wound up walking in circles for awhile before finally getting it right. But getting lost on foot is just the point of visiting Asakusa.

Each small street presents the potential for new discovery, and if they do eventually lead you to Sensō-ji, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent old temple surrounded by gardens (and tourists…)

Still not tired of visiting Japanese temples — which are distinctly different from their Southeast neighbors — I later sped off to Kamakura for a day trip and enjoyed seeing even larger, less crowded temples.

Things to Do in Tokyo: A City Full of Distractions

Tokyo Skyline

It’s near impossible to be bored in Tokyo. Whatever your interests are, there’s something for you. Personally, I have no patience for museums, but prefer to spend city travel in bars, restaurants, parks, and sometimes shops. I also didn’t seek out any of the cliche-ishly crazy aspects of Tokyo, but still found great things to do (solo!). My personal favorites:

  • Seeing Tokyo from above — The new Tokyo Skytree offers visitors a great view of the Tokyo skyline, but you have to pay. For a free option, try the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (photo above taken from the top!)
  • Sipping on a Japanese craft beer — I had no idea craft beer was gaining enough popularity in Japan that there were multiple bars specializing in it. Time Out Tokyo has a great list of craft beer bars. I sampled Craft Beer Market and Harajuku Taproom. Craft Beer Market won out for price, while Harajuku Taproom had a better location and ambiance.
  • MochiEating Japanese food — I won’t pretend like I always knew what I was eating (one Tokyoite I met took me on a dinner where is sole goal was to order the “strangest food on the menu”) but I can confidently say, Tokyo is full of great food, and manta ray jerky is delicious.
  • Exploring the city, one station at a time — Each area in Tokyo has it’s own feel. In fact, many visitors to Tokyo explain it as a huge mass of micro-cities. Harajuku is quirky, Asakusa is quaint. Get on the train and explore.
  • Staying out all night — Since the trains close pretty early, you may have to. But that’s OK, Tokyo has a low crime rate and there’s enough nightlife (Karaoke, anyone?) to keep the fun going until dawn.
  • Browsing the latest trends — Tokyo is full of shopping. Sibuya 109, though well trodden, features a lot of Japanese designers and give visitors a great taste of what’s hip in Japan.
  • Buddhist temples and parks — As a whole, Tokyo is a sprawling concrete jungle, but pockets of green and calm are blissfully easy to come by. There are Asakusa’s Senso-ji and Harajuku’s Yoyogi, just to name two, but take to the streets and explore.
  • Tokyo neighborhoods — Each neighborhood within Tokyo has it’s own distinct personality and feel. This microcosm of unique places are one of the many reasons that makes Tokyo a fantastic city to explore endlessly.
  • The Ghibli Museum — I adore Spirited Away and basically anything Miyazaki directs. Expectedly, Tokyo has a museum dedicated to Miyazaki films where kids are encouraged to get lost and explore. Buy tickets well in advance, though, since they can sell out days — even weeks — in advanced. [Photo below]

Totoro at Ghibli Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Why Tokyo Rocks for Solo Travel

My favorite quote about Tokyo is from Matthew Amster-Burton in his food-centric, Toyko travelogue Pretty Good Number One (a must read for anyone about to travel to Tokyo):

Tokyo is the opposite of the DMV. It is the least annoying place I have ever been.

Ditto. Even the parts about Tokyo that I first believed would be chaotic and overwhelming, like cramming onto a rush-hour train at Shinjuku, were still efficient and not obnoxious at all to navigate. More amazing still was how quiet the station and trains were, even with a mass of hundreds of people shuffling to and from trains.

What this also means though, is Tokyo is a fantastic place for the solo traveler. In fact, I made a list of all the reasons why Tokyo is a great destination for solo travelers — even women traveling solo.

  • Being alone isn’t weird
  • And even if it was weird, no one would tell you that you’re being weird
  • The Tokyo Train System is the most user-friendly public transportation in the world. Buy a Suica or Pasmo card at the airport. You’ll be refunded for your deposit when you return it later.
  • There are unlimited sights and attractions to see — you’ll never be bored or able see it all
  • Friendly and polite locals — seriously. This is the total opposite of the DMV.
  • Tokyo is the safest city in the worldSo safe, some budget travelers sleep outside in the summer months to save money.
  • For places to sleep, there are a variety of hostel and Couchsurfing options. I stayed at Khaosan World,  in part because they had a sale, but also because of its ambiance and non-party hostel vibe. I loved it enough that I’d stay and pay full price if I ever go back — especially since the bunks are comfy, spacious, and allow you a good amount of privacy for a shared room.
  • Lots of couchsurfing and expat meetups, if you care to meet someone outside your hostel.

In sum: Tokyo is easy to fall in love with, and undoubtedly one of the best destinations for solo travelers — if not the best.

Tokyo Crosswalk

Tokyo Park


Have you traveled alone in Tokyo? What are your tips?

Adventure Travel Asia Laos The Nomadic Life Travel

Thakhek, Laos: The Bermuda Triangle of Rock Climbers

Month three of a round the world journey

In November of this year, Liz and I landed in Hanoi to embark on our third month of travel, and we were tired. We had hit a wall, and wanted nothing more than to be somewhere warm, forget about bus schedules and border crossings and stay in the same place for a week. Of course, whiling away the hours with beer on the beach isn’t really our style, and in any case, a cyclone was hurriedly rushing toward the coast of Vietnam at that time, so we decided to hop a train and a bus over to Thakhek, Laos.


monks in laos

Why Thakhek?

Because of the rock climbing.

thakhek climber

Of all the places to visit in Laos, Thakhek isn’t as popular as Luang Prabang or Van Vieng — but that’s part of its charm. Thakhek town has a lazy, river-side vibe, and most often draws visitors for the border crossing between Laos and Thailand, “the loop” — a circuit you can travel by motorbike visiting nearby caves — and trekking. Of course, with these caves come mountains, and with these mountains, rock face. Fortunately for us, a German couple had tapped the climbing potential of the area outside of Thakhek several years ago and not only bolted dozens and dozens of routes (and were still bolting more when we showed up at their door) but had built a hostel for visiting climbers: Green Climber’s Home.

Thakhek cave

Green Climbers Home

For us, Green Climber’s Home was like a dream hostel. A bed in their dorm or a rented tent was affordable. The food was also cheap and featured a ton of fresh, healthy options (we were mildly obsessed with the green salads and mango smoothies). Almost all of the routes were within a five minute walk of where we slept, and the hostel had any and all climbing accessories like climbing harnesses available to rent if you didn’t bring it with you. Best of all, our fellow guests were there to climb, talk climbing, and climb some more. Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I’ve always felt that climbers are some of the most down to earth, friendly people around, so to stay in a hostel full of them just meant extra good vibes. Not to mention, the clever bar games that came out after a few beers: who can coil a rope the fastest; bouldering around benches/tables; or attempting to pick a small box off the floor with our mouths as a tipsy test of flexibility.

Green climbers home tent

It’s probably no surprise then that almost everyone we met there was staying or already had stayed longer than they planned. Even we tacked on an extra three days (minimal compared to a few other personalities who had already logged a month at the place). Basically, it was one of those places you could easily forget about time and stay forever at. It was like a Bermuda Triangle of rock climbers who had disappeared from the rest of the world — especially since no wifi meant deconnecting.

In short, Green Climber’s Home was exactly where we wanted to be to wade out our travel fatigue.

A story of resilience

Green climbers home

At the time we visited, Green Climber’s Home was under some construction. About a year back, a fire that started during some Saint Slyvester celebrations destroyed most of the hostel. However, once word got out to the climbing community, donations came pouring back in to make restoring the place possible. Good thing too, because not only is it a great place for climbers, but a business that cares about giving back to the community and being sustainable. Happily, I noticed on their website that they have finally completed all the restoration since we visited.

Why Thakhek rocks for rock climbers

Thakhek rock climber

Besides this little community of vagabond-rock climbers, one of the reasons why Thakhek rocks as a rock climbing destination is the variety of easy to advanced climbs. There’s something for everyone: 5.7 – 5.9 grade climbs to get comfortable leading on; multi-pitch routes; and some seriously challenging I only managed to watch others ascend. Like most rock climbing in Southeast Asia, it’s also warm and humid for most of the day, but there’s enough routes in the shade to keep climbers out of the sun.

Tips on climbing in Thakhek

happy salt shaker

I won’t waste too much time with the how-to aspect of climbing in Thakhek — The Green Climber’s Home website already has thorough details, bus schedules, and maps in both English and German. But some quick tips to know:

    • No gear? No experience? That’s no excuse. Gear rentals and classes are available.
    • Bring tape — the rock is seriously sharp
    • A 60m rope is fine, 70m is better, and 80m is necessary for few climbs. Rentals aren’t too expensive though, so I’d recommend bringing a 60/70m, whatever you have, and renting the 80m if you happen to need it.
    • You can purchase a guidebook with topo maps of all the climbs at Green Climber’s Home. It includes other parts of Laos.
    • Green Climber’s Home and all of the routes are located 16km out of town. A tuk-tuk should cost about 100,000 kip ($12USD). Limited bikes and motorbikes are available for rent at the hostel.
    • There isn’t a whole lot around Green Climber’s Home other than climbing. Even if you’re there just to bag some new routes, pop by Thakhek on a rest day for some fresh fried fish and a Beer Lao Dark by the riverside!


Adventure Travel Africa Ethiopia The Nomadic Life

On the Roof of Africa: Trekking in Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Four Days of Walking

For the four days Liz and I trekked through the Simien Mountains, the smell of wild thyme followed us. The wind was full of strong gusts of the scent that reminded me of old, unidentifiable memories, as we hiked from one beautiful vista to the next, among wild baboons, birds, and ibex. It seemed like we were forever pausing at a cliff side to stare out on blue-green rolling mountains from the roof of Africa. At one point, I noticed that the horizon was never straight, always slanted, which could explain why it also always felt as though we were trudging uphill. It felt that way because it was that way.

Simien Vista

Because of the season, and the rains that came every day, the park was filled with a dozen shades of green, from the dark army green of lichen hanging from low, umbrella-like trees, to the bright yellow-green of terraced barley fields, and the pale yellow-green of tufts of wild grass in between. Bursts of yellow, purple, and a muted pink from wildflowers filled the gap and I could never seem to take a photo good enough to record just how beautiful this mixture of color looked.

Flower Collage Simiens

With the colors, the rain also brought mud and clouds. We trekked through muck, hopped across streams, and sometimes found the trail had turned in to a river. On our final day of the trek, we hiked 400 meters to the top of a peak through cold rain and hail, only so we could eat cabbage sandwiches in a cloud and stare at more cloud. From the top of a second peak, we waited for half an hour, chatting, eating cookies, with a pair of chain-smoking French tourists, watching the clouds move over the valley, waiting for them to part just well enough for us to see and understand just how high up we were.

Cloud Parting

On our first full day, we took refuge from the rain in a rounded hut, while an elderly woman with a worn, yellow scarf, slowly roasted coffee for a coffee ceremony. Our guide, who we all thought to be shifty and easily offended, sat in the corner and sipped his coffee, while our scout, who we all gathered to be well liked and jovial (even though he only spoke about 10 words of English), sat at the center making jokes in Amharic and making the old woman and her daughter laugh. The rest of us, excluded because of our linguistic shortcomings, fell into conversation amongst ourselves.

Ethiopian Round Hut Simiens

Coming down from the mountains to our campsite on the second day, a group of rag-tag children came sprinting up the mountain with little woven boxes in hand that they wanted to sell us. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but we were tired, so we paused to play and joke with them. They tried to teach us how to use a whip to herd donkeys, and we tested their English. One of the girls began mocking the Canadian girl’s laugh, which sent all of us, especially our elderly scout, into riotous laughter.

That night, like every night, we descended into our campsite feeling wet, cold, and tired, but eager to eat whatever it was our cook had whipped up. Usually, she made an Ethiopian interpretation of what Western food was, but we didn’t know how to say that we’d rather just have injera and shiro.

Campsite Simiens

On our final day, Liz and the other American raced up a nearby peak, while the Canadian girl and I wrote in our journals on a cliff by our campsite, watching a bird that always sounded like he was burping dive in and out of the sky. Like that we stayed until nearly dusk, waiting for our car to pick us up. When we asked our guide “what will we do if our driver doesn’t show up?” — being North Americans who need a contingency plan — he shrugged and gave us a vague “we’ll do something” response. Serendipitously, our car showed up just as I was trying to process what “something” would mean, and we drove back to Gondar at 5 mph in a thick mask of fog.

How to travel to the Simien Mountains

Road to Simiens and Baboons

Anyone who travels to the Simiens needs to hire a scout at minimum. Some people recommend having a guide, since scouts don’t usually speak English, but I would have been fine without ours! They’re cheap, only a few dollars a day, though it’s polite to tip at the end as well.

Cooks are optional, but affordable and nice to have someone else make your food after a long day of hiking. Also, if you hire donkeys to carry your bags, a cook will make sure they get to the next campsite. Hiring a donkey to carry your bag is also optional, but nice.

All of this can be arranged in Gondar or at the park office in Debark. Starting and ending in Debark is a good way to save a little money, and convenient if you are heading north to Axum after the trek (going back to Gondar is about an hour or two of backtracking).

In the end, we spent about $220 each for everything (food, transportation to/from Gondar, guide, cook, scout, permits, donkeys, and lodging) for 4 days and 3 nights of trekking.


Campsite Child Simiens{1} Vista on the roof of Africa
{2} Flowers along the trail
{3} Waiting for the clouds to part from a summit
{4} Traditional house in the Simiens
{5} Getting ready to go at Campsite #2
{6} Baboons by a waterfall
{7} The road in/out
{8} Scouts and guides talking around a campfire while a local girl visits

The Nomadic Life Travel

How to Celebrate Christmas After A Long Journey Abroad

If you’re like me and haven’t celebrated Christmas with your family, or in your own nation for several years, or are bravely returning home after a RTW trip in the height of Christmas cheer and creature comforts, here’s how to celebrate Christmas after a long journey away:

1. Hug your family

They’re probably letting you crash on their couch/spare bedroom, so thank them for it with the biggest bear hug you’ve got.

By Joseph B

2. Gobble down as many cookies, glasses of egg nog, and other home-cooked delights as possible without puking

I know you’re probably excited to have cheese and proper junk food in your diet again, but don’t push it.


3. Take a long hot shower

Hot water… real water pressures… and showers with the best shower heads, that actually make sense… ahhhhh

Shower Head by Steven Depolo

4. Use this captive audience to your advantage

You’ve been gone for awhile, use this opportunity to share your stories and photos from abroad because who knows how long this holiday cheer will last before they begin grumble under their breath for “would she shut up about Tokyo already…”

Storytelling, Concord Library

5. Turn your brain to mush with a movie marathon

One of the coolest discoveries I’ve made since being home? Our neighborhood movie theater now has plush recliners and sells beer and wine. And there’s no better time to indulge in these creature comforts than Christmas movie season when literally dozens of brand-new, never before seen, movies are coming out! I was just beginning to get a little tired of re-watching Weeds on my laptop…

By Jen Dubin

6. Start a snowball fight

(If you have snow, that is.) My idea of what’s socially appropriate in America might be a little off at present, but when it comes to playing in the snow, who cares? I haven’t touched snow in three years, jerks, let me throw a snowball or two!

Snowball fight in Times Square by Dan Nguyen

7. Act like a kid again

Especially if you haven’t celebrated Christmas at home for the past year, two, or more, feel free to act like a kid again. There’s probably oodles of Christmasy things you missed out on last year while sipping mojitos on a beach, so no need to hold back being excited about them this year!

By Barely

8. Turn your souvenirs into Christmas gifts

In America, I hate shopping, but in Tokyo, it was a blast. I’m also notorious for never bringing back souvenirs for friends and family, so timing my return to America right before Christmas motivated me, for once, to stock up on a few exotic goodies and wrap them up in holiday paper. I get the feeling that there’ll be a lot of “oooo, thank you Jessie… but um… what is it??” this year.

By TimTom.Ch

9. Sleep in

No work, no busses to catch, and no dorm-mates rustling around in plastic bags at 4 in the morning (seriously guys, please stop organizing your backpacks with plastic bags!) I, for one, am sleeping late!

By Kaibara87

10. Catch up with old friends

While I absolutely love all the friends I have made in the past two and a half years abroad, my friends from home are no less important (especially those of you who have been following this blog ;D). I’m looking forward to catching up with you all, and please, let me know if I say something absolutely inappropriate or commit some terrible social faux-pas!

Peace Corps Friends

Happy Holidays, guys! Wherever you may be!


(Only two photos were my own in this post: #2 & #10, credits for the rest can be found by clicking on them)

Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Photo Gallery: Quirky Street Art in La Reunion

Jace Graffiti La Reunion

“You can always tell the kind of personality a place has by the way they treat graffiti,” – My little brother.

If that’s the case, then I’d call La Reunion quirky, cartoonish, and welcome to the burst of color graffiti adds to its streets. Most of the graffiti I took photos of ended up being by an artist named Jace (I’m sort of in love with his yellow-man character and the different situations he winds up in), but not all of it. Anyways, I ended up with so many photos of graffiti from La Reunion — and there’s a surprising amount for such a small chunk of land — that I decided to devote a whole post to it.


In Saint-Pierre; By Jace

Jace Graffiti La ReunionIn Saint-Pierre; Unknown artist

Peuf Graffiti La ReunionIn Saint-Pierre; Unknown artist

Stencil Street Art La Reunion

In Saint-Pierre; Unknown artist

Old Man Graffiti La Reunion

In Saint-Pierre; Unknown artist

Spraypaint Hand La Reunion

In Cilaos; By Jace

Jace Street Art La Reunion

What has been your favorite travel destination for street art?

The Nomadic Life Travel

Oh Hello, America. Long Time No See…

By Tom Check

Last Tuesday, I was stepping off a flight from Tokyo and being welcomed back into America by the oh-so-cheery Dallas airport.

I’m kidding. Dallas was a weird first sample of America after two and a half years abroad. It was just a little too AMERICA for me to handle after a 12-hour flight in which I intelligently took Benadryl to help me sleep, and then watched 10-hours worth of movies instead of sleeping. I wasn’t in the mood to understand everyone’s conversations, and was a bit of a zombie as I wandered around the airport ogling junk food options and trying to make sense of the fact that I am once again considered a small person (5’3″, if you were wondering…). A man sat down a seat away from me at one point and, as Americans sometimes do, said something about how terrible the weather was at no one in particular, but loud enough for me to understand I was meant to respond. I didn’t respond, I just lapsed into thought about how odd this habit was.

Since last Tuesday, I’d say I’ve become a bit more socially apt than that (being well rested helps), but bits and pieces of life back in America continue to distract and boggle me. Reverse culture shock, I suppose. (Although I don’t really feel shocked, just boggled. Should we perhaps change the term to reverse culture bogglement? Reverse culture confusion?) Anyways, here are a few of the things about America that have stood out:

We really, really love our troops

This is mostly thanks to a bunch of overhead announcements at the Dallas airport. On one hand, it seemed normal to me that, once again on American soil, I’d start to be bombarded with “support our troops” propaganda and that super cheery demeanor airport staff gets around military personnel (mention Peace Corps, however, and you get none of that excited and gushy “we so appreciate what you’re doing for our country!” Whomp, whomp, whomp). On the other hand, it was one of those things that felt distinctly American. We really f*ing love our military, but I didn’t see so much of that abroad.

Christmas and consumerism

Some of the travelers I met in the past couple of months shook their heads a bit when I said I’d be returning home at Christmas.

“All of that consumerism is going to be shocking!” They’d say.

Those who didn’t, were probably fearing their own Christmastime return.

It has been a little shocking, but Tokyo helped lessen this blow a little. At least in Japan, where Christians account for a minuscule part of the population, Christmas is a blatantly consumerist holiday. It seemed to be nothing more than a nice excuse to buy a small gift for a friend, and I kind of liked the simplicity of this notion. In America, however, there’s so much pressure to buy for everyone you know, and wrap it in pretty boxes and paper that will quickly go into the garbage. Furthermore, with all the options of things to buy in America, and so many options of each specific item (color, price, best deal, sales, etc.) I find this attempt to acquire gifts a bit daunting and time consuming. Perhaps, this is a good time to implement my friend Chacha, of The Rich Life’s December challenge: The Gift of Giving No. I’m not sure my 3-year-old niece would appreciate this though.

We create and sell some pretty useless crap

Today, I saw a commercial for a cut in half birdhouse you can suction cup to your windows so you can watch what birds do inside birdhouses. Enough said.

Washing machines are fantastic

And why are they fantastic? They shrink your jeans back to a fitted size, you can have your clothes washed while you sleep, and do I really have to explain the simple joy of pulling a towel straight out of the dryer? Yeah, washing machines are fantastic.

So many choices!

Like I already expressed, the seemingly endless array of choices can be a bit overwhelming — but in the case of food, it’s also very exciting. Menus take me about 10-15 minutes of processing, and grocery stores are a whole afternoon’s worth of entertainment. I’m really trying hard not to every delicious thing at once, especially after going a little crazy with the 7-layer dip and pigs in a blanket at a recent Christmas party…

Americans love friendly banter

I was still in Tokyo when this one hit me. I made a joke to one of the stewardesses using grammatically complicated English and slang — and not only did she understand, she laughed. I had two epiphanies getting on that plane: I could stop speaking like an ESL teacher with strangers, and Americans really do love to make friendly small talk with just about everyone and anyone. The conversation with my waitresses aren’t just “one coke and a pizza, please,” but also an opportunity to announce that so far, today’s been a good day, and by the way, how are you? Americans really are friendly — and I’m glad that my experiences this week have been living up to this awesome stereotype.

Now, please excuse me. I have an afternoon excursion at the supermarket planned…

Africa Ethiopia In Photos The Nomadic Life

Photo Gallery: Looking Back on One Month in Ethiopia

The month that Liz and I spent in Ethiopia marked a lot of strong positives and negatives. I was yelled at threateningly (twice), and Liz was told that all Americans should go to hell. Boarding a bus first thing in the morning turned out to be an experience akin to the running of the bulls. The habit of having local and faranji (foreigner) prices for everything (food, hotels, transportation, literally… everything) drove us crazy. But then we would meet a kind shopkeeper or group of playful kids, or find ourselves overlooking a dramatically beautiful landscape, and those negative experiences seemed instantly to be countered. Unfortunately, it sometimes took all of our patience and will power to get through the most unpleasant moments and remember the kindness and beauty other people and areas of the country had shown us. Actually, wherever we are in the world, it’s all too easy to let the rudest and meanest representatives of a new place be the loudest speakers in our minds. But because of how strongly I felt this in Ethiopia, I always hesitate when people ask, “so, wasn’t Ethiopia amaaazing?” or “Everyone was really nice there, right?” The answer is yes and no. I’ll probably elaborate further in coming posts, because, at the very least, Ethiopia has given me a lot of stories to tell.

Despite the ups and downs, one thing Ethiopia was consistent in was being beautiful (with, perhaps, the exception of Addis Ababa) and full of visually stunning scenes. Personally, I was also a big fan of the food, but maybe I’m less bothered than most by eating the same thing three times a day. So, in the end, while I may hesitate to sum up the overall amazingness of Ethiopia or general nice-ness level of its people, I won’t hesitate to say I don’t regret going there and I’d enthusiastically encourage others to go there and explore.

But anyways, the purpose of this post is to dazzle you with some of my favorite photos of the trip, so let’s get to it.







{1} Men and women in a church in Bahir Dar
{2} Street scene from above in Harar
{3} Woman preparing coffee for a coffee ceremony in the Simien Mountains
{4} Waiting for the clouds to part at the top of a peak in Simien Mountains
{5} Traditional breakfast food, “ful medames” made of beans and tomatoe and served with bread
{6} Young girl by our campsite in the Simien Mountains

The Nomadic Life Travel

Why I’m Thankful for Travel


Being Thanksgiving and all, the blogosphere is filled with recently posted, thoughtful pieces about thankfulness and the like. Among travel blogs, I’ve come across a few introspective posts on what travel makes us thankful for, and all the eye-opening bits and personal transformation that come with being an intrepid, nomadic soul. I enjoy them, and there’s quite a few things I could think of myself (my American passport, to start with), but what about the reverse? Maybe I’m hitting on some of the same sentiments, but I wanted to talk today about why I’m thankful for travel and the opportunity to explore.

For the friendships

Travel encourages us, even forces us, to make new friends. When you are a stranger in an unfamiliar place, you can’t just hide in the comfort of your own home, relying on TV and old friends for company. You have to be brave and talk to someone you’ve never met before. Sometimes, when I’m on the road alone for awhile, it’s loneliness and the realization that I haven’t opened my mouth to say more than “one coffee, please,” that gets me out of my own head and striking up conversations with whoever will let me. I’ve met so many amazing and inspiring people this way.

I’m thankful that travel has taught this shy kid to be a bit more bold and see the whole world as a potential source of friendship, not just the sorts of people that look similar to you. Also, I’m thankful for all the like-minded people that I’ve accumulated as friends over the past few years, because believe me, I’ve found some good ones ;D

For what it teaches us about ourselves

In the semi-unstructured realm of travel, we have a lot of time to think introspectively and reflect on what we are experiencing, how we react to unfamiliar situations, and what that says about ourselves. It also puts us in new situations that bring out this really base self of everyone’s personality. I really believe that how you handle a stressful situation (like missing a bus or being ripped off) can reveal a lot about yourself, and that these situations are a way to practice bettering ourselves. Ditto for how we act around new people. In travel, as opposed to at home, we experience these sorts of things often, and get to learn something new about ourselves every day.

There’s also the concept of learning by contrast. I don’t think I fully understood what being an American meant until I studied abroad in Senegal and Malta. By learning what it meant to be Senegalese/Maltese/British/French/Spanish/etc. I was also learning about my own national identity and how we fit into the world. For this, I am thankful for travel.

For what it teaches us about others

wpid-storageemulated0photoeditorPeace-Corps-Education-Class2.jpg.jpgRoaming the world exposes us to endless personalities, cultures, and outlooks on life. When face to face with our differences, I think we are more likely to break down stereotypes and understand that finer differences exist underneath any one label (i.e. Asian, Christian, lawyer, etc.). The humanity of the ‘other’ is impossible to escape, and so long as we travel with an open and inquisitive mind, we are likely to learn much more about others than we ever could have at home. Sometimes, even the context itself suddenly sheds light on something we may not have understood before. Sometimes, we also discover there’s a lot to learn from these other perspectives — maybe I didn’t have all the answers after all…

For the skills we pick up along the way

How else would I have figured out how to wash a pair jeans by hand, speak Malagasy, or drive a motorbike if not through travel? I guess I had all the resources to do so at home, just not the initiative. In this regard, I am thankful that travel doesn’t just create the opportunities to develop new skills, but pushes us to do so as well.

For the patience and good humor it gives us

Travel isn’t always sunny beaches and good food — it can be stressful, challenging, and downright upleasant at times. There’s nothing like a 36 hour bus ride on a hard metal bench to teach a girl how to meditate and be patient (and also, how to hold “it” in when you really have to pee) or vendors in a Moroccan market place asking you every 5 seconds “where are you from?” for you to practice fending off irritation by making jokes (“I’m from Japan, obviously…”). Anyone who has traveled for a long time (hopefully) has gained the ability to be patient and laugh off the small things. How could you survive it if you haven’t?

For the adventure

If you haven’t figured it out already, I love a good story, and even better, a good adventure. Travel, and even just applying that sense of wonder and discovery to your everday life back home, is my favorite way to have new adventures. I’m thankful for all the big and small adventures, everything from trying a new dish to trekking across the Simien Mountains, that travel has allowed me to embark on.

For showing us what’s really important in life

wpid-storageextSdCardDCIM100D3000DSC_00942.jpg.jpgAnd finally, perhaps a combination of everything I’ve just mentioned, I am most thankful for travel because it has taught me what’s most important in life. Maybe this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I don’t think careers and success are more important than friendship and happiness. They hold weight, for sure, but after living and traveling abroad for quite some time, I’m a little nervous to return to our materialistic, progress-obsessed nation (this fear has mostly come out of reading Cosmo magazines on my Kindle…). For all the running around and 60 hour work weeks we do, I don’t believe we’re really becoming a happier and more satisfied, just creating more cravings and demands. After experiencing life at a much more basic level, maybe it’s better to strive to have enough in the ways of material posessions and to be comfortable than all these unnecessary excesses. Maybe, everything we do in life should be towards making it a better, more pleasant place for others, and enjoying every day, rather than working our butts off so that “some day” we’ll be well off.

So that’s my list, but how about you? Why are you thankful for travel?

Adventure Travel Africa Travel Uganda

What it’s Like Gorilla Trekking in Uganda


In the jungle

Standing in the mess of twisted vines and jungle overgrowth in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our little group of explorers — myself, my friend, a middle-aged Swedish couple, our guide, scouts, and trackers — stood in silence as we stared at a family of silverback gorillas in front of us. They stared back, equally curious. A loud, humming sound broke the silence, and one of the Swedes turned to our guide and asked, “what was that?” in a voice that suggested wonder and excitement.

Our guide, the only woman working as a guide in the park, smiled and began to giggle like the schoolgirl she must have been years ago. “Hehehe – they are farting,” she said and we all began to smile and laugh softly. Even the scouts and trackers, who never spoke enough for me to know just how much English they knew, began to chuckle. The sound happened again, and we all looked knowingly at each other and continued our immature, muted giggles.


“They ate a really big breakfast,” our guide said, continuing the joke.

And for an hour, they continued to lounge in the jungle, farting, pooping, growling at each other, and sometimes lumbering over into another part of the forest. At one point, one of the females, seemingly annoyed at her audience, charged at us and one of the trackers raised his machete and barked back at her. She backed down.

“You always have to show that you aren’t afraid. They’re just trying to scare you, but if you try to run, they may pick you up. They’re really strong and can break your bones or kill you really easily. They don’t always mean to, they’re just so strong.” Our guide had cautioned us.

After one hour, we had to leave before we over stayed our welcome and really began to piss off the gorillas.

Since trekking in Uganda in September, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from other travelers about the experience and I thought I would include them here in case you were wondering the same thing:

Was it worth the money?

Honestly, I try not to think about it. I was a lot of money for what it was, but the proceeds from the $500 per person permits go back into protecting the gorillas and their environment, and improving the standards of living in nearby communities (related goals, really). Also, even though the trek was brief, it was incredibly well run and you could tell a lot of work and money goes in to protecting the park. Trackers, guides, and scouts are well-trained, and the guides all speak excellent English.


Is there any way to do it cheaper?

All in all, we paid $900 each for the permit, private transportation to/from Kampala, hotels, water, and all our meals, through Cheap Uganda Safaris. While we don’t regret the splurge (our driver/guide, Alex, who runs his own company, Freelyn Adventures when not freelancing for others, was awesome and it was nice to break up our budget backpacking with a bit of uncomplicated luxury) we could have done it cheaper. We could have linked up with other travelers since tour prices drop as the number of people increases, or taken the independent route, buying the permits ourselves, making it to Kabale by bus and hiring a driver from there, getting all of our own food, and camping in our tent. Also, a lot of tour companies buy permits in advance and so towards the end of the tourist season, around November, some will have discounts on their tours and will sell the permits off for about $350. The trade-off here is that it’s rainy season, and the trail is muddy and slippery.

Bwindi Forest

Do you always get to see the gorillas?

It’s pretty much guaranteed. We asked this question to our guide who said yes, she’s always been able to find the gorillas. The park tracks each family’s movements and at the beginning of the day, trackers set out well before the guides and hikers to locate the families based on where they were last seen. Guides and trackers communicate with walkie talkies for updates on their whereabouts. When we asked our guide what was the longest it ever took to locacte them, she said “about 10 hours.”

“We had to call the office on our walkie-talkies and have them bring us dinner and more water,” she said, remembering the experience.

For us, we found them in about 2 hours, stayed for an hour, and were the first group out of the park.

Gorilla Tracker

So, it was pretty amazing then?

I’d be kind of an asshole if I said no, right? Just kidding. It was amazing, but far too short an amount of time. Also, I think seeing the gorillas (sitting around, farting, eating, looking at me with a strangely human face) made it easier to relate to them and grasp the commonalities humans have with other primates. So, in a way it made them less of this incredible, mysterious animal that exists somewhere-out-there in the world and more of a familiar face. Maybe I’m being vague, but it wasn’t like seeing lemurs and thinking about how cute and amusing they are, but being in the presence of an animal that you know is watching and observing you as much as you are it was a totally different nature viewing experience. They’re intelligent and complex, and you feel that.


Africa Ethiopia Travel

Drinking Coffee with Tomoca, Addis Ababa’s Oldest Roasters

Tomoca Coffee

My inspiration to travel to Ethiopia came while drinking a cup of coffee that tasted like cardboard. I wanted good coffee, and I felt that Ethiopia would have that. After all, my experiences in America had taught me that Ethiopian Arabica roasts were medium-bodied, fruity, and exactly the thing to cure my coffee doldrums. As with many other places that are famous for their coffee though, Ethiopia tends to send the best of their beans abroad as a cash crop, and it turned out that getting a delicious Ethiopian roast in Ethiopia was trickier than I had expected — which is why my friend and I decided to head to (an abbreviation for Torrefazione Moderna Café). Although firmly on the tourist circuit, this coffee shop run by Addis Ababa’s oldest coffee roasting company has still preserved much of its original ambiance, and is still largely frequented by nearby businessmen and other locals looking for a quick pick me up. Since their founding in 1953, they have since expanded to two other locations in Addis Ababa, but we wanted to check out the original on the Piazza’s Cathedral Street, where we felt the personality of it’s original years would be most in tact.

So, with a hand-drawn map on the back of an old receipt, we left our hotel in search of the famed coffee shop, but couldn’t seem to find it. We continued for blocks past where we thought the shop would be, into slightly sketchy territory, but eventually gave up and settled on one of the stylish, modern cafes abundant in Addis Ababa. Disappointed, we vowed to try again the next day.

Turns out, the place is so unassuming from the outside, that we had walked right past it on our first try! Marked only by a small, simple brown sign, is easy to miss if you’ve never been there before. Fortunately, we walked slower on our second attempt, and this time spotted the small hole in the wall, just past the intersection with Churchill Avenue and went inside.

Once we entered, we were surrounded by the sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the loud clamor of tiny glass and ceramic mugs against saucers, the tell-tale hiss of an espresso machine, and lively conversation. The place was full with customers — mostly men — standing around tall tables chatting with friends or pouring over the newspaper on small stools while sipping on’s espresso-shot sized cups of buna (black coffee), makiato (coffee with milk), or capucinnos. All their coffee is slow roasted using a traditional Ethiopian process but in modern Italian-made roasters to bring out a fuller flavor and aroma from their Ethiopian Arabica beans. Even before tasting their coffee, I could smell the result of the time and care they had put into getting a quality roast out of a quality bean and felt myself bubbling with excitement as we approached the counter.


For a bigger cup, we told the cashier “double” before paying and being handed a small plastic chip, which we then took to a back counter where the coffee was dished out. Three employees stood behind the back counter, taking chips and brewing coffee out of their large espresso machines, while customers grabbed their cup (no Starbucks take away cups here!) as the orders came up. Another woman bustled around taking a shaker full of sugar away from those with slightly empty cups, and placing them in front of customers who had just received their orders — since, of course, you can’t drink a cup of coffee as an Ethiopian without three teaspoons of sugar (we were just glad no one was trying to put the sugar in the coffee for us.)

And how was the coffee? Everything I expected of an Ethiopian coffee roaster with 60 years to perfect their craft. The small cup of buna tasted rich and strong and left us feeling revived and ready to dive in to the chaos of Addis Ababa’s downtown area, or perhaps, inspired by the Balzac quote hanging from the ceiling (“When you drink a cup of coffee, ideas come marching like an army”) write a short story. We even debated taking a bag of one of their several roasts on the road so we could enjoy the aromatic flavors of even after we had long left Ethiopia’s capitol behind. But in the end, we decided against it. Sitting in the bustling atmosphere of’s original coffee shop was part of the reason that made that one cup so enjoyable, and even if we could take the taste home with us, we would never be able to fully recreate the experience of sipping downright delicious coffee with the locals at in Addis Ababa.


Adventure Travel Africa The Nomadic Life Uganda

At The Source of the Blue Nile in Jinja, Uganda

Blue nile

I will forever remember Uganda as being a thousand shades of green. We arrived in Jinja, Uganda at the end of a long rainy season, and at the beginning of a tropical downpour, that had been making me nervous as I tried to balance myself and heavy backpack on the back of my motorcycle taxi (called a boda boda).

“Where are you from?” My driver asked

“America,” I said dryly.

“Oh! Amereeca! Will you marry me?”


“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to marry anyone I have known for only two minutes. Now please watch the road.”

“You’re scared?”

“Just watch the road.”

Obviously, I was more concerned with getting to our hostel, Adrift, before it began to dump buckets of water from the sky, than a boda boda driver’s romantic, or more likely, self-serving, intentions.

We got there, but just barely, and spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and trying to make out a brown, muddy Nile that stood against a backdrop of white haze. The next morning, however, the rain and mist had lifted, and we were greeted with a wide, lolling river, made lazy by a pair of nearby dams.

Why visit Jinja?

Ugandan Fishermen

Jinja, Uganda is a popular stop over for adventurous tourists looking to bungee jump or white water raft down the Nile (mostly out of our hostel, Adrift, which sits a few kilometers outside of town but has a lively bar that overlooks the Nile) and the less adventurous ones who would prefer to bob up and down on a small canoe bird-watching or booze-cruising on a sunset boat ride that putters past papyrus reeds and fishermen — exactly the sort of scene you might expect to see on the Nile if you ignore the anomaly of your boat.

Ugandan fisherman Nile

Off the river, Jinja is a large, bustling town. Downtown’s main street is dotted with several cute cafes (like, Source of the Nile) that serve up freshly brewed coffee — a great break from the instant coffee we kept getting throughout Kenya — and dozens of souvenir shops basically selling the same thing. Being Uganda’s second largest metropolis (after Kampala) I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by this bit of cosmopolitanism. I was rather surprised by how many foreigners and tourists were roaming the streets, many of whom seemed to be unusually pretty girls in their early 20s, sporting flowing long skirts. Volunteers in the name of God, maybe? I’ll never know.

source of the nile cafe

Final thoughts

Ugandan school children

In the end, I found the place overly touristy but beautiful. I was happy to move on, but encountered several foreigners who now call it home. Mostly, I feel like I’ve walked away from Jinja being able to say “no big deal, I’ve been to the Nile.” Not a bad place to spend a few days, right?