About Katie

Hi! I'm an ex-corporate workaholic turned global nomad. About three years ago, after realizing how unhappy I was and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I decided to break the routine of the daily grind and pursue the one thing I love... travel. After a year of planning and saving, I left. What was supposed to be a year-long career break turned into two years and 14 countries and I'm still going. I'm incredibly grateful that the universe conspired with me and I want to share that gratitude on the road. So please, come along on my adventure and let's see if we can't all find gratitude daily.

Caught in the fray

It’s been over three months since I last updated you all, and for that, let me apologize.  As most of you know, I’ve jumped back into Corporate life here in Johannesburg, and despite my best efforts, I seem to once again have lost my balance.  My creative writing has been replaced with writing recruitment policy documents.  Exploration equates to digging through past process for the sake of evaluation.  And travel is reserved for day trips to various office locations.  I’ve done less sightseeing than I would have liked, but as I’ve said many times, my adventure isn’t just about seeing beautiful sites.  It’s about experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, and developing relationships that make this gigantic world feel much, much smaller.  And to this end, my adventure to date, work included, has been a complete success.

Now, a lot has happened in three months, and it would be an exceptionally long post if I were to start from the beginning, so I’m going to summarize and just give you an update on the past month, which has been a whirlwind.  I’ve been consulting with a global architecture, engineering, and construction company and the assignment was to examine current recruitment processes, determine how to implement existing corporate structures across the region of Africa, hire a team and my replacement, and then outline policy that would allow the team to integrate and grow.  Mission mostly accomplished.  I’ve learned that everything moves a little slower in Africa… everything from people to infrastructure to service delivery, so it would probably help if I had a few more weeks or even months, but I think we’ve been able to build a strong foundation.  Unfortunately, after working many more hours than I told myself I would work, and playing just as hard on the weekends, I came down with what I thought was a case of the flu.

When I woke up on Monday morning about three weeks ago, I knew it was a little more serious than the average cold because my glands were swollen and I could barely drag myself out of bed.  As I’ve already had to do twice on this journey, I mustered all my energy to research local healthcare options, reached out to friends for advice, and then took myself to the doctor.  Antibiotics in hand, I left the doctor thinking I could go home and sleep the rest of that Monday and hopefully feel better enough to return to work on Tuesday.  However, on Tuesday morning, I woke instead with what looked like a tumor on the side of my neck.  I called the doctor back and when I told him that I was feeling worse, he insisted that I needed to give the antibiotics 48 hours to work.  So I reluctantly called in sick again for work and went back to bed.  During the next 24 hours, I was restless, had trouble sleeping and lay in a state of delirium, wondering what sort of African bug had taken hold of my body.  By Wednesday morning, not only had I barely been able to sleep, but I could no longer swallow, and my voice had turned into a scratchy whisper.  Off to the doctor I went.  My appointment was at 10:30am.  The doctor took one look at my throat and escalated his diagnosis to throat abscess and acute tonsillitis.  He said he needed to refer me to an ENT and immediately picked up the phone for the ENT on the second floor. He made it an urgent request, sent me upstairs where I promptly met said ENT.  The ENT said my throat was too swollen to see anything but given the fact that it was so enflamed and I couldn’t swallow anymore, he thought it best to admit me to the hospital for two nights.  While there, they would administer intravenous antibiotics until the swelling decreased and the doctor could do a needle aspiration of my throat to determine the extent of infection.  What the hell was happening?  By 3:30pm that same Wednesday, I had an IV in the back of my hand.

World. Turned. Upside. Down.

Getting my IV drugs at Sandton Mediclinic

Getting my IV drugs at Sandton Mediclinic

Do you remember the last time that you’ve been so sick that you didn’t have the energy to do anything so all you could do was sit and count the seconds as they tick past?  My closest recollection was post knee surgery 2010, but at least then, I knew exactly what had happened.  I had never been more grateful for the relationships that I had developed in the weeks prior.  The well wishes from co-workers, the offers to bring me food, magazines, or anything else that I required, the friends who came to visit, and the man who sat by my bedside and sent pictures of me to my parents so that they wouldn’t worry after I had just called them for my emergency travel healthcare policy information.

I’m happy to report that after a needle aspiration of my throat, the doctor determined that I did not have an abscess, just a severe infection, so after another day of antibiotics, I was discharged with strict advice to rest and return in a month for a tonsillectomy.  I will say that I’ve settled in quite well here in Joburg, but there’s nothing that makes you miss friends, family, and home more than suddenly falling ill in a foreign country.  And while I’m also happy to report that medicine in this developing nation is on par with first world medicine, I would just feel more comfortable getting a tonsillectomy in the states.  So there you have it… I’m coming home.

Over the past two weeks of what has felt like a very long road to recovery, work has been more hectic than ever, thoughts and plans for leaving have turned bitter sweet, and I’ve realized that I’ve made some really fantastic friends here.  The kind of friends that will be there during the bad times, not just the good.  So, although I’m tired of South Africa’s winter and can’t wait to catch the end of a California summer… I find myself caught in the fray.

I’m a bit worn out by the long hours of work, but I’m sad to leave the team here.  I want to visit home, but suddenly feel like I’m abandoning a home that I’ve just started to build here.  And unlike the other friends I’ve met on the road, with whom I’ve spent a few days, this time I will be leaving friends with whom I’ve spent months getting to know… and I can’t really say when I’ll see them again.  My heart breaks a little every time I think about it and there’s a bit of a battle going on in my heart and my head… I’m not sure what side I’m on so I’ll just have to let it play out.

This, my friends, is the current state of my world and my mind.  I haven’t purchased the tickets yet, but I’m pretty sure that I will… And would then be arriving in Los Angeles some time next month.  I can’t wait to see you all!

Be grateful today for your health… it makes a world of difference.

Travel, a living, breathing organism

Tato enjoying an afternoon at Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town.

Tato enjoying an afternoon at Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town.

I met Tato when I was in Cape Town in January.  He was my neighbor at Longstreet Backpackers hostel and I remember being instantly relieved to meet him, a seasoned traveler who, like myself, was interested in culture and history, as opposed to a 21-year old student, who might be interested in drinking and going to every bar on the street.  Tato is from Uruguay, is an ex-professional basketball player turned journalist and writer, and has a kind heart, cheerful spirit, and thoughtful approach to life.  He and I formed a fast friendship and spent some time wondering around Cape Town together for a few days, which was comical in and of itself because Tato is about 6’7″ or so and I’m 5’3″.  Tato and I talked about intentions and travel and how both can be a force of their own.  It’s a common theme among all of the travelers who I have met along my journey.  We all describe it in slightly different ways but in essence consider travel to be a living, breathing organism that can push and pull us in all sorts of directions.  Like anything else in life, we can exert a lot of energy and frustration by pushing back or we can settle in and let the wave carry us. When Tato & I said our good-byes, Tato was off to the airport to fly to New Zealand and I was off to wine country in Franschoek.  When I meet someone special like Tato, I always have an intention to stay in touch, but as travelers, we know that we come from different worlds and we have no idea when those worlds will collide again.  We let the travels guide us.

As I continued my journey from South Africa to Australia and on to New Zealand, I began to feel that wave of travel energy more and more.  It was all around me.  I have tons of examples, but I think the best ones that I can share are those most recent in my mind from my time in New Zealand.  If you read my last post, When the road takes a turn, hug the curve, you know that as I arrived in New Zealand, I made the decision to accept a short-term work assignment in Johannesburg.  So, once that decision was made, I gave my mind a rest, stopped planning and surrendered to the pull of the organism so that I could enjoy complete freedom before starting work.  There’s no doubt that I would ponder the future, but I allowed whimsy to guide my last 12 days, and as I did, I had some of the most amazing experiences.

First, there were my hosts in Auckland, Anna & Diana (and their 3 kids).  Not only did they accept my last minute request to stay with them through Airbnb, but they allowed me to extend my stay day by day and when they learned of my decision and subsequent desire to rent a camper van, they jumped to assist me.  Anna, a fellow traveler and explorer, knew of a site called Transfercar, a broker site used by rental agencies to find people like me who are willing to drive a vehicle back to the location where it is needed.  There is no cost for the rental (and no contract); I would just need to pay for fuel and the ferry crossing, which I was planning to do anyway to see the south island.

It's so great to be able to take your bed with you.

It’s so great to be able to take your bed with you.

Anna found a great deal for a camper van that offered a 5-day window to get to Christchurch, a trip that really only takes about 2 days if you drive direct, and within 48 hours, the site had accepted my request.  Anna also found a great sale on a gps so that I could easily navigate the country without needing maps and wifi, and was able to offer me a ton of advice on various campsites.  Just like that, I was on the road.

Polynesian Spa in Rotorua.

Polynesian Spa in Rotorua.

I knew I wanted to see both islands, but I really didn’t have a plan, so I just started driving. I had heard that Rotorua, land of thermal pools and beautiful lakes, was a nice spot so I headed in that direction. I stopped when I wanted to stop, explored when something looked interesting, soaked in thermal baths at the Polynesian spa, and camped in my camper van under New Zealand’s star-filled night sky. It was beautiful, sunny, quiet, and peaceful, and eventually I made it to Wellington. By that point, I was enjoying my camper van so much that I decided to message the rental company to see if I could keep it longer, which would simply mean that I would then have to pay the rental rate per day. It was late Friday night though, so I would have to await the response.

Ferry crossing Cook Strait

Ferry crossing Cook Strait

The next morning, I took the ferry across Cook Strait and decided that Golden Bay sounded lovely, so I would head in that direction.  I drove up hills, along winding roads overlooking the ocean, and had to resist the urge to constantly pull over and take a picture.  The best part about New Zealand is that it has heaps and heaps of amazing things to do and see all compacted into two little islands, so nothing is ever too far away.

Sunset in Pohara, Golden Bay

Sunset in Pohara, Golden Bay

I made it to Golden Bay by that evening and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I was supposed to return my camper van in Christchurch the next day, but since I hadn’t heard back from the rental company, I went to bed that night thinking I might just keep it and head down the West Coast of the south island to go see the Franz Josef glacier.  And the next morning, that’s exactly what I did.

Now, up to this point, I had seen a large number of hitchhikers as I drove over the past 4 days, more than I had seen across all other countries combined, and I was very curious about this phenomenon.  As I was heading out of Golden Bay, I decided to selectively pull over for a friendly female face to get a first hand account of why someone would choose to hitchhike.

Tressa, my first hitchhiker.

Tressa, my first hitchhiker.

Meet Tressa.  She’s 33 years old, originally from Wayne, PA, and now calls Tahoe, CA her home.  She developed an addiction to the “organism” of travel a long, long time ago and created a lifestyle of seasonal work that allows her to stay on the road most of the year.  She’s done everything from grant writing for non-profit’s in California to being a carpenter’s assistant in Antarctica.  And it turns out that she was on her way back to Antarctica but opted for a long stopover in New Zealand.  Hitchhiking for her is just another form of adventure and it pushes and pulls her in directions that allow her to experience the culture of a country and it’s people in a way that the average traveller couldn’t even fathom.  She carries a completely self-sufficient pack and when she can’t find a ride, she camps.  She utilizes a bit of a barter system for her rides and offers her drivers tales of her adventures, a warm, optimistic, friendly exuberance, and whatever she picks up along the way, which happened to be fresh pears when I met her.  Now, an interesting thing happens when you only have a vague notion of where you want to go next and you pick up someone who has a stronger notion.  Our travel forces merge and are tempered.  This happens with every encounter, but became very evident to me at that moment in time because I had been completely alone for the past four days on the road.  Tressa was headed East to Christchurch & although I was tempted to go that way as well, I preserved my inclination to go West, so we drove for about 4 or 5  hours that day together and then parted ways. Leaving Tressa was a strange occurrence for me because she asked me to leave her on the side of the road, something I would never normally allow someone to do, so that she could find her next ride.  I left her feeling awed by her bravery.

Sunset over the beach in Greymouth.

Sunset over the beach in Greymouth.

I stopped driving each day so that I could have a glass of wine and stare at the sunset.  I camped that night in Greymouth and awoke in the morning to a text message from the camper van company telling me that the van was needed back in Christchurch for rental the next day.  Ironic.  I had just left Tressa on the side of the road the prior day and it turns out I needed to go to Christchurch after all.  Fortunately, for me, it made little difference.  I altered my course in my gps and hit the road.  As I was driving through Arthur’s Pass, I decided to pull over and take a picture of the little town, and it just so happened that there was another hitchhiker standing there at the very spot where I stopped.  I didn’t really notice him until I was getting out of my camper.  It was complete coincidence, but I don’t really believe in coincidence.  He seemed unassuming and well-mannered so I asked him where he was headed.  “Mt. Cook”, he said.  I explained that I didn’t really know where Mt. Cook was and that I was heading to Christchurch.  He told me it was on the way, so I invited him to join me.  Again, forces collided.  His name was Vincent, he was from France, his profession was navigation specialist for sea vessels, and he had been traveling for the better part of 18 months.  I’ll admit, at this point, I was intrigued… I was forming an opinion that hitchhikers are far more adventurous travelers than most.

It didn’t take us long to get to Christchurch and I explained to Vincent on the way that I didn’t really know what I was going to do after I got there because I was returning the camper van that I was driving and had to find a way to get to Queenstown for my flight to South Africa.  Vincent, being the self-sufficient traveller that he was, didn’t seem to care all that much.  He would simply find his next ride.  When I dropped off my camper van, a day late I might add, the manager at Road Runner Rentals didn’t seem too bothered.  Not only did he not charge me for the extra day, he offered me his office and his computer so that I could look up numbers to other rental agencies in town to find either a car or another camper van.  There were no camper vans available, but I found a very reasonably priced car that I could drop off at the Queenstown airport.  Voila!

Since Mt. Cook was on the way to Queenstown, I would now have to rent cabins or rooms, and it was supposed to rain that night, Vincent and I decided to keep traveling together.  It would be easier to share some of the expense.  Vincent also explained that I could still see the Franz Josef glacier by approaching Mt. Cook from the East Coast, so it was all working out quite well.  Vincent was hitchhiking and camping his way through New Zealand, so he had the country mapped out far better than I did and his navigation was welcome.  The next day, we headed for the mountain and what a day it was!

The road to Mt. Cook

The road to Mt. Cook

As we started our drive, it was overcast and ominous, but as we got closer to the mountain, the sun burned through the clouds and by early afternoon, a shimmering, snow-capped mountain stood looming before us. We did a few walks around the lower trails so that Vincent could investigate whether he was going to stay and camp. He decided that the weather was far warmer than he preferred while carrying his pack and there was little cover, so he would continue south with me to cooler temperatures.  For me, however, there was no way I was leaving that mountain without seeing the glacier. So, we headed to the village airport and I negotiated the best rate for a snow plane landing onto the glacier.

Tasman glacier, Mt. Cook

Tasman glacier, Mt. Cook

This experience was incredible!  The pilot was an expert who had been giving these rides for over 30 years, so he had a wealth of information.  The mountain peaks were absolutely gorgeous and gleaming in the sunshine. We saw the Franz Josef glacier, Fox glacier, and landed on the Tasman glacier.  I’m pretty sure that was the closest I’ll ever get to summiting a mountain so it was the highlight of my trip.

Now, just a note about the “living, breathing organism”… it turns out that because of the cloud cover on this particular day, if I had tried to take a helicopter or plane ride up to the glacier from the West Coast like I had originally intended, I never would have made it. Wayne, our pilot, told me that normally when he flew over the peaks, we would be able to see the ocean, but all we saw that day was a blanket of white, which meant that planes would be grounded on the West Coast .  Thanks to Vincent, who I never intended to pick up in the first place, I experienced what I considered to be the highlight of my trip in New Zealand.  I could feel the organism breathing…

View of Queenstown from the Sky View Trail.

View of Queenstown from the Sky View Trail.

By the next day, Vincent and I made it to Queenstown and although Mt. Cook was still the highlight, Queenstown was a close competitor.  A city of about 23,000 people in the Lakes District, it is full of tourists, travelers who decide to stay, and lively energy.   Vincent & I walked the Sky View Trail, lingered by the waterfront, had dinner in the Irish Pub and then came back in the evening for drinks after settling into our campsite.  The next morning, my last full day, we found Vudu Cafe and enjoyed a delicious, leisurely breakfast.  As I was sitting there, my thoughts wandered to South Africa and all the people I had met there.  It seemed surreal that I would be going back there the next day.  And just as the thought passed, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Tato!  Tato was walking down the sidewalk past the cafe.  I ran out the door and yelled his name down the street.  He froze and then slowly turned around, stunned.  I ran up and gave him a hug.  I couldn’t believe it and neither could he.  I asked him to join Vincent & I.  We swapped stories and he explained all of the factors that delayed his travel to New Zealand.  He revealed that he, too, had been hitchhiking down to the south from the north island.  So, right then and there, I decided to pick up my third hitchhiker for one more day of fun.

Tato and Vincent in Arrowtown

Tato and Vincent in Arrowtown

We went to Arrowtown, home of the first Chinese mining settlement.  It was quaint, adorned in budding autumn colors, and had plenty of delicious coffee shops.  We took a walk along the river, popped into a few shops and then exchanged more stories over a cup of coffee.  I was sitting there watching Tato and Vincent talk; like all of us were old friends.  Another surreal moment.

 

Tato’s initial plan that day was to go to Kawarau Bridge, the home of buggy jumping, to watch some of the jumpers, so we headed there next.  Vincent & I had already been there but it was a great spot and we didn’t mind going back.  While I was standing there watching,  I still couldn’t believe the accounts of the past days.  I couldn’t believe that I was standing there with these two incredible men.  I couldn’t believe that I was going to change my itinerary and go to work in South Africa.  I thought, I just have to have faith.  And then I felt the pull… yup, I was going to have to do it.  Take a symbolic leap of faith.

Vincent, Tato and I in Queenstown.

Vincent, Tato and I in Queenstown.

That night, the three of us met up again for dinner and drinks.  We remarked how amazing the organism of travel is.  It was a crisp, beautiful night.

Normally, the night before I change countries, I feel a mix of emotion ranging from anxiety, anticipation, and excitement, to nervousness.  Normally, I barely sleep.  This night I felt nothing but calm gratitude. I could feel the organism living and breathing inside me. I knew I would let it take me wherever I was meant to go next…

When the road takes a turn, hug the curve

I have this mantra that I learned years ago at a Buddhist Meditation retreat and I repeat it to myself whenever doubt or uncertainty creeps into my mind.

“I am open to the perfect organizing power of nature. I accept what the universe has planned for me”.

If you want, substitute God, or whomever or whatever it is that you believe, in place of nature and universe. To me, it’s all the same. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t go after what I want in life. I believe it just means that the universe is going to provide it for me when I’m truly ready to receive it and can handle it. I’ve been reciting my mantra regularly for the past two weeks because just when I thought I was settling into this life of travel on the straight open road, the road took a turn.
Curve in the road
Just before leaving Australia, I got a call from my dear friend and former manager, Rob. I haven’t talked with him much as I’ve traveled so I was excited to catch up with him, however, when we connected, he didn’t update me with what was going on in his life. Instead, he started explaining that there was a need for someone with my skills to work in the Johannesburg office (of the company where I formerly worked, and where he still does). He said, “I know you’ve got your travel year planned, but I just thought that you might like to add some funds to your rapidly shrinking bank account and you said you liked South Africa”. Some of you know this man well, and you know how logically he can lay things out with expert and subtly placed persuasion. This call from Rob came on my last Monday in Australia. By Thursday, one day before I was supposed to fly to New Zealand, I was talking to Rob’s counterpart in England, who would be the manager of the role. His counterpart has only been working with the company for about 8 weeks and isn’t certain of exactly what needs to be done or the current state of affairs in Johannesburg, but after a 30-minute conversation, he felt relatively confident that I could assist and said he would need someone for 3 months to get things up and running. He ended the call by asking me, “What do you think? Are you in?”

My head was spinning. Am I in? I was flying to New Zealand in less than 24 hours, still had not researched lodging, and was meeting a friend for lunch in 2 hours. “In” also meant that I would have to cancel the rest of my non-refundable flights. I would have to reschedule the rest of my travel and probably rebook in a different order because in 3 months time, the climate of the countries I was planning to visit would be different. I would have to cut my time in New Zealand short. And, if I continued my journey in 3 months when the assignment ended, I would no longer be home before the end of 2014, so I had to think about what I had planned to take care of in the US before the year’s end… things like taxes, storage, banking, etc. So the negotiations began. Before going to lunch with my friend, I updated my resume and sent a proposal of what I needed from the company in order to be “in”.

I was completely distracted during my lunch and had to apologize to my friend for being a little less present than normal. My usual 3-5 day advanced planning routine for what comes next turned in to no planning at all. I would just have to see what the world holds for me when I woke up in the morning.  I did decide to get on my flight to New Zealand and I did find lodging there thanks to some lovely kiwis who kindly accepted my last minute request for a room. After some back and forth emails over the course of 48 hours, we had reached a verbal agreement on my proposal. My new manager said, “I think we’re going to have to find our feet on this one, but with a little faith from both sides of the camp, I am sure we will be fine.” Pre-travel, no way. Post-travel, I feel like I could be dropped into a war zone and find my way out of it. So, ok, faith it is.

Now, at this point, my head made this decision before I consulted with my heart. My head thought, “an opportunity to work internationally”, no brainer. I needed to really let it sink in and make sure I was ok with it before I started reorganizing, so although I had the idea of renting a camper van in New Zealand when I was still in Australia, it couldn’t have become more necessary at that moment in Auckland to give me some time alone with my thoughts and my heart… some time to make sure I was “in” and could make a mental shift to jump back into work. And within another 48 hours, after a little searching, the universe provided a campervan. Now, the thing I love about road trips is that it’s just me and the road. Sure, there’s the gorgeous scenery and the fellow travelers and locals I meet along the way, but mostly there’s just lots of time for thinking, reflecting, and appreciating. I have been relishing every minute of it to ponder my tomorrows. I’m not necessarily one who will make “pro” and “con” lists. I’m more of a person who looks for signs and then goes with my gut. Interestingly enough, here are some of the signs that New Zealand provided to me as I literally looked at the road ahead and thought about what I should plan next.

Scan for hazards

This is a road sign, but how apropos. What hazards could I expect to find upon arriving in Johannesburg? How could I create breathing space?

Plan your journey

Right. You can plan your journey, but plans don’t always work out the way you expect, so create breathing space. Wow.

Too fast

Too fast? Slow down. Right… slow down. Ironically, when I submitted my proposal, even before I saw these signs, I added a clause that outlined the maximum amount of hours I would be willing to work per week. I added it to put the company on notice but also to ensure that I held myself to a balanced life. It was to give myself “breathing space”, even if I wouldn’t have defined it as that at the time.

I’m sitting in my camper van thinking, have these signs always been here or did someone recently just come and place them on the side of the road for me? I am loving my travels for all of the many reasons that I’ve alluded to in prior posts, but the side effect has been that I’ve also learned to breathe again, and I mean breathe deeply.

Hi, my name is Katie and I’m a workaholic. Everyone who knows me or has ever worked with me knows that I often lose some of the balance in my life because I throw myself into everything I pursue with all of my heart. So, here’s my chance. I’ve dedicated this year to travel and I’ve thrown myself into it, but this might be my chance to find balance even in traveling. A little work, a little travel, a little work, a little travel. Maybe this is how my life should go. Some routine and then a break from routine. The signs are making me ask myself all the right questions.  Maybe some of the lessons I’m learning have really sunk in this time. Maybe I’m ready to learn them.

“I am open to the perfect organizing power of nature. I accept what the universe has planned for me”.

Winding roadI’ve been on the road witnessing the amazing and breathtaking scenery of New Zealand for seven days. When the road takes a turn, and I can’t see what’s ahead, I hug the curve and it always straightens back out again. I’ve been breathing deeply and I’ve been revelling silently with awe and gratitude. And I’ve decided…I’m in.

Thanks for letting me talk this through and share it with you. Stay tuned for more adventures as I go back to South Africa… in 4 days!

Attitude is everything – enter “Janaina Paxer”

I was recently recollecting turning points for me in the course of my travels with a new friend and fellow traveler, Kristy Randall (highlighted here ).  I thought this particular instance was worth sharing because it applies to everyday life, not just travel, and has truly shaped the rest of my journey.

Puno town square

Puno town square

I was about eight days into the start of my international travel in the small town of Puno, Peru and I was supposed to take a leisurely bus tour through the countryside from Puno to Cusco, known as “The Sacred Valley”, stopping to see and explore several historical sites.  However, the town of Puno had other affairs bubbling to the surface.

I was having dinner in Puno after a very long day of travel and touring and still fighting a bit of altitude sickness (Puno sits at about 14,000 feet), when all of the electricity went out in the town.  It was pitch black.  I thought nothing of it having grown up in the country myself and figured it was just a power surge.  My waiter brought me a candle for my table so that I could finish eating my meal and we were all comfortable just waiting for the electricity to come back on… but it never did.  I finished my dinner, tottered four blocks back to my hotel, and upon entering the lobby, was called immediately over to the reception desk to take a phone call.  My tour operator was on the line explaining that a political strike had begun in Puno and it was expected that the electricity would be off indefinitely.  In addition, she wasn’t certain that buses would be running the next day, as most public services were screeching to a halt in cooperation with the strike.  Therefore, she thought it was best to get me onto an overnight bus to Cusco within the hour and have me forego the next day’s tour excursions.  Still somewhat fresh on the road and adapting to solo travel, I certainly didn’t want to be stuck in a tiny town with no electricity and some very unhappy citizens, so I quickly agreed.

I went to my room, pulled out the pocket flashlight for which I thought I would have no need, and started packing my backpack as best I could while holding the flashlight in my mouth so that I could see what I was doing.  As promised, my tour operator arrived to fetch me and took me to the bus station.  She went as far as to change my ticket, put me on the bus, and ask a friendly stranger and father of two in the seat next to me, to look out for me since I spoke little Spanish.  Now, this also meant that she was going to call ahead to the tour operator in Cusco to let him know of the circumstances and ask if he could meet me at the bus station in the morning.  I would also need to call the host family with whom I was staying to let them know that I would be arriving at 6am instead of 6pm.  It was a bumpy ride through the night, and I got very little sleep, but I made it to Cusco.  Miraculously, the next tour operator was there to meet me in Cusco and my host family kindly allowed me to check-in early.  The room I rented from my host family was a little more rustic than described and there didn’t seem to be any hot water, but I rested that day, explored the town a bit, and tried to make the best of the situation.

Cathedral de Cusco

Cathedral de Cusco

The next morning, I was scheduled to commence with my tours of the town and several historic ruins.  I arrived promptly at the meeting point and patiently searched for my tour group.  Considering that this tour company had been so prompt and on top of things so far, I half expected them to be waiting for me and calling out my name.  No such thing occurred and after several minutes, I began searching for the group.  At this point, the tour was supposed to have already begun.  A few more minutes passed and now, I would be almost 10 minutes late… I hate being late.  Finally, a girl walked out of the cathedral where the tour was scheduled to begin and called my name.  I walked over to ask what was going on and she proceeded to apologize and explain that yesterday, someone else had mistakenly taken my “boleto turistico”, the tourist ticket that allows access to a dozen different historical sites, including the cathedral I was about to enter.  Instead, she was giving me the ticket with the other person’s name on it; the person who had taken my ticket.  This ticket is valid for up to 14 days, allows re-entry to all the sites during that timeframe and costs over $100.  She continues to explain that the office that administers these tickets is unsympathetic to these types of mistakes and will not re-issue the ticket, nor can the tour company purchase another, so I would have to use the one she was giving me.  This is why I couldn’t find them and they couldn’t find me.  They were calling a different name.

“So, what does this mean?”, I say.  She continues to explain that she has already informed the current tour guide of the mistake and has assured me that he will take care of any issues throughout the day.  She says they rarely ask to see ID when you present the ticket at the entrance to sites, so it shouldn’t be an issue.  However, for me, this ticket was also a memento for my travel journal and I would have to take care of explaining the situation in the following days to other guides and then be especially creative if I wanted to re-enter any of the sites.  I was very frustrated.  This is not consistent with my expectations of customer service.  In the US, I would be negotiating my way to a new ticket, a discount, or some other resolution to make up for the mistake, but in Peru, where I spoke little Spanish, had no idea how far I could push the issue, and really didn’t want to waste any more time on it, I felt a bit helpless.  The girl gave me her contact number in case I had any issues in the coming days, which was pointless since I didn’t have a local phone and the ruins are all in remote countryside towns.  I felt a bit deflated, and also a little angry that I had just missed the first 20 minutes of my tour of a gorgeous cathedral.  I had not arrived in Cusco under the best of circumstances, didn’t have the most comfortable accommodation, and was short on sleep so this was just the icing on the cake after my last 48 hours.

I walked into the cathedral to join the group and felt a bit awkward as everyone turned to look at me causing a disruption.  The tour guide was talking but I had no idea about what since I was late.  I could feel my negativity festering.  I sat there a few moments pondering what I could do about this situation, completely ignoring what was going on around me.  Then I looked up.  I was surrounded by gold in-laid tiles, gorgeous stained glass windows,  ornate artistry and symbolism unlike anything I had ever seen.  I was stunned.  In that moment, I thought, I could sit here and be pissed off about this ticket mishap, or I could forget about it and relish all of the beauty and history that I was witnessing and enjoy the rest of my day.  Before proceeding to the next area, the tour guide came over to introduce himself since I missed introductions and asked me what my name was.  “Hi”, I said, “I’m Janaina Paxer.  Sorry to be late”.

Boleto touristic with Janaina Paxer's name… my temporary identity.

Boleto truistic with Janaina Paxer’s name… my temporary identity.

Now, of course, I can look back and laugh about this entire week.  So I was Janaina Paxer for three days.  Who cares… after all, I had joked with friends before leaving that the best thing about traveling alone is not only that I can do whatever I want, but I can also be whomever I want.  And guess what?  My boleto turistico with Janaina Paxer’s name on it is an even better memento and reminder in my travel journal.

Whether while traveling, or in plain old, day-to-day life, it’s rare for everything to go as planned, but attitude is everything.  I’ve always known this but find it’s easy to forget.  As I continue my travel, I think about that 48 hours between Puno and Cusco regularly.  I have had many more similar and different challenges and am happy to say that slowly but surely, I’ve learned to take all of them in stride.

Sometimes there are moments when I have to remind myself to revel in gratitude… and am so glad when I do.

Going native with the Kuku Yalanji

As I travel, I usually try to do as the locals do to get a sense of culture, but recently I decided to go a step further – not just local, native.  As I’ve ventured through Australia, I read about the aboriginal peoples who lived there.  In every country I’ve visited there have been a native people, similar to the Native American Indians in the US, who are slowly dying off because they have lost their land, their way of life, and many times their ability to share their stories.  Each of these peoples has a unique way of life and an amazing ability to reap more from the land and its flora and fauna than most current day city dwellers.  I didn’t want to leave Australia without learning more about some of these peoples, so while visiting the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns, it seemed like the perfect place to learn about it’s aboriginal clan.  In Australia, there are more than 200 clans, or mobs, as they are sometimes known, all of whom speak their own dialect of aboriginal language.

Binna's studioThe day started at the Brian Swindley Gallery in Mossman.  Brian goes by “Binna”, and his gallery is also his home.  Binna is passionate about sharing the Kuku Yalanji way of life so that it is never forgotten and he does so by telling stories through his artwork.  Binna was born with a severe hearing disability that he has overcome by learning to speak and lip read and he has been communicating through his painting for over 20 years.  When our group arrived at his gallery, we were welcomed with Binna’s giant smile and great sense of humor.  Binna explained that before his people had language, they communicated through art, and the art told stories about the land and the animals.  The colors used are typically an earthy red to represent the land, a mustard yellow to represent the sun, and white to represent water.  The artwork is often painted using sticks and creating variations of dots and lines.  Once he taught our group about some of the symbolism of the paint colors and how to create the patterns, he asked us all to paint something that we had seen when we walked through the rainforest.  As I looked around the table, I could see everyone thinking hard about what they should attempt to paint and how to do it.  DSC04187I, myself, found that painting by using a pattern of dots and lines was very detailed and time consuming even for the small canvas that we were given, yet Binna, who joined us and continued working on one of his own pieces, seemed to paint effortlessly.  The picture in his mind was very clear.  He was remarkable to watch.

While the paint on our canvases dried, Binna ended our session by teaching us how to play the didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.  This instrument was used to recreate the sounds
found in nature and again, to tell a story.

Binna playing the didgeridoo

Binna playing the didgeridoo

There are specific dances that are performed to the music that also emulate the habits and movements of the animals.  In general, only men play the didgeridoo because it is believed that if a woman plays it, she will become barren.

After leaving Binna’s house, we went to the Daintree Rainforest for a nature walk to learn about all of the edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants, as well as some of the animals and insects in the forest.  We filled our water bottles up with the fresh mountain stream water, and after a delicious lunch of fresh barramundi or kangaroo, we were off to the mud flats.

Cooya BeachCooya Beach (Kuyu Kuyu in Aboriginal language) is a unique coastal place with three diverse ecosystems – beach, mangroves, and coastal reef – that are connected to each other by the ever-changing tidal lagoons.  It has traditionally been the hunting ground for the Kuku Yalangi because when the tide goes out, the ocean floor turns into a sandy, muddy mix.  There are crabs, fish and other sea creatures that don’t always make it back out to sea with the tide, which makes them easier to catch.  Because of the heat of the day, they all tend to burry themselves in the sand to stay cool.  The Warra family, of the Kuku Yalanji clan, has been fishing on this beach for decades and now owns a block of land just across from it.  The family has over 200 members and many of them live within a few blocks radius of the beach and one another; their community is close-knit.

There are two brothers, Linc and Brandon Walker, who strive to preserve the rights of their people to fish on this beach and who are passionate about sharing the Bama Way, an Aboriginal journey from Cairnes to Cooktown that follows story lines of two different cultures and how they operated as traditional custodians of the land.  Linc was waiting for us when we got to the beach and also greeted us with a giant smile and lots of enthusiasm.  There was an empty bucket sitting next to him along with a pile of bamboo sticks that all had a metal point fastened to the end of them to create spears.  The tide was out, the mud was fresh, and Linc explained that we would be searching for mud crabs, mussels, and maybe even fish on the beach today.  He gave each of us a spear and then taught us how to hold and throw them.  Linc placed a few coconuts ahead of us and we all stood in a line to take a few practice runs at throwing our spear at the coconuts.   We would be attempting to hunt and catch our food that day so that we could take it across the street to Linc’s house for an afternoon meal.  After watching everyone’s initial attempts at throwing their spears, it was looking like we might go home a little hungry, but we were certainly an enthusiastic and determined bunch, so off we went.

I was walking cautiously through the mud to try to sneak up on any crabs I found so that they wouldn’t scurry off beyond my reach.  I was certain after my own attempts at throwing my spear that the closer I could get, the better.  Plus, I didn’t want a crab pinching me if I accidentally stepped on it buried in the sand.  We had a group of 10 people, so we fanned out.

We were only walking for about 10 minutes when, Jayne, one of the ladies in our group, called out to Lync.  She had found 2 mud crabs mating!  This worked out quite well because they were distracted and she was easily able to spear the male.  Linc explained that according to the Bama Way, we would only take the male because the female was too small and it was best to give her another chance to mate.  This made perfect sense and didn’t matter much anyway because male mud crabs are huge.  Just after we got the male crab in Linc’s empty bucket, one of the other members of our group found another female mud crab, this one was large enough to keep and eat.

Sea Snake on Cooya Beach

Sea Snake on Cooya Beach

After a few more minutes, Marc, our driver and  guide, called out to the group to let us know that he had found a sea snake.  We had no interest in catching or eating it but he wanted us all to know where it was because it was rare to see and because it was extremely poisonous.  We wouldn’t want to accidentally step on it.  Fortunately, it is usually difficult for them to bite humans because there mouths are so small, but nonetheless, it was best to avoid it.

By this point, I was really determined to find a crab.  I’ve never had to hunt for food in my life, but as I participated in this exercise, my competitive drive kicked in and I wanted to contribute.  I fanned as far away from the others in the group as I could so that I could hunt in my own patch of beach.  My eyes were peeled trying to spot even the slightest movement; poking at dark holes to see if I could scare a crab to the surface.  Finally, I saw what looked like two eyes, but I wasn’t certain because I was a few feet away.  I planted my feet, took my stance and jabbed my spear forward, just lower than my target as we were instructed.  Crunch.  Yes!  It was a crab!!  As I pulled it up out of the sand, I realized

Speared sand crab on Cooya Beach

My speared sand crab on Cooya Beach

that it was smaller than the mud crabs we had just caught and it was tinted blue.  I didn’t know what kind of crab it was and wasn’t sure it was big enough to keep so I motioned for Linc.  He came over and identified it as a sand crab.  He said it was big enough to take and it would be a tasty dish because it is sweeter than the mud crabs.  Woohoo!  I had just speared my first catch and I was very satisfied that I would be able to contribute to our afternoon meal.  I couldn’t wait!

Linc demonstrating how large the sea turtles are … it takes a few men to pull them out of the water.

Linc demonstrating how large the sea turtles are … it takes a few men to pull them out of the water.

After hunting for our food, we went across the street to Linc’s family home to cook it and eat it.  There is nothing better than fresh crab!  Link had also made some damper, a type of soda bread, for us to try.  While we ate, he showed us the shells of all the other sea creatures he had hunted and captured in those mud flats and he also explained some of the customs and traditions of his clan.  In their families, children have many mothers and fathers because all of a mother’s sisters are standby mothers to her children and a father’s brothers are standby fathers.  It is also traditional for them to make large meals and eat in a communal style.  They actually catch large, green sea turtles about once every 2-3 months and when they do, it is large enough to feed almost their entire family of 200+ members.  Impressive.

A nest of Weaver ants

A nest of Weaver ants

Our final lesson of the day… the green ant.  It’s formal name is the Weaver ant and it is eaten not only by Australia’s aboriginal people but also by populations in parts of Asia and China because it is high in protein and fatty acids.  It’s gaster, or posterior portion, is bright green and contains formic acid.  Normally, the ant defends its nest by pinching and then spraying formic acid to make the pinch sting.  However, if you stir up a nest, gather a handful of these ants, and then mash them together quickly before they pinch your hands, they will release all that formic acid and it has a lemony-lime smell that the Aboriginals often used for medicinal purposes to clear the sinuses.  Linc insisted that if we ate it, it would taste a little bit like lemon or lime.  My adventurous nature tends to fade quickly when it comes to eating insects but Linc was insisting, so before I could think about it, he gave me one to try.  I think it tastes like lime!!  I don’t know that I’ll go around scooping them up whenever I see them, but I guess if I’m ever stranded in the rainforest, I’ll know what I can have for breakfast.

The experiences of this day were really fun and special for me.  The Aboriginal ways of life are extraordinary and I loved learning about them and hearing the stories.  After all, isn’t that what life is all about? … Creating memories and telling stories?  I hope it makes you want to try something new… something that you’ll be able to share in a story at your next happy hour or dinner party.

Revelling in gratitude for all of the stories people have shared with me.

Kindness of Strangers, featuring Kristy Randall

When I first told people that I was going to travel around the world, solo, many of them looked at me as if I were completely nuts. “Alone?” they would question. And then came the barrage of follow up questions, “Is that safe? Won’t you get lonely? How are you going to do it all by yourself?”

Some of you, who know me well, also know that I really have to bite my tongue when I answer these types of questions or sarcasm will get the best of me.  I mean… I live alone. In Los Angeles. And, at the end of the day, traveling around the world is no more dangerous than me driving through South Central LA at the wrong moment in time. Whether I’m in my home city or half way around the world, I travel smart.

I also believe in the good of all humankind and I rarely ever feel alone… and as it turns out these days, I rarely am alone. So, for all of you who have questioned my sanity, I’d like to share a story.  It will be the first of many stories that will feature a specific person… a stranger turned friend. A story that I hope will be a demonstration for you of the goodness in all humankind and why I’m never alone unless I really choose to be.

DSC00275During my second week of travel in Peru, I was visiting Lake Titicaca and the Uros Islands (see more photos here) with a tour group of about 20 people. It started early in the morning and consisted of a van ride from my hotel to the pier, a boat ride on Lake Titicaca to the Uros Islands, and then continued on to Taquile Island, where we would do a short hike to the top of the island, have lunch, and then walk back down to our boat to take it back to the mainland… all while learning about the fascinating lifestyles of the native peoples who lived on both islands.

DSC00297It wasn’t until lunchtime that day that I had an opportunity to meet and talk at length with Kristy Randall. I sat next to her during our meal and quickly learned that we had a few things in common. We joked about the difficulty of dealing with food allergies on the road and realized that we had both quit our jobs and decided to travel solo around the world. She was from Wodonga, Australia and had already been traveling for 8 months in a manner far more rugged than what I planned to do. She was also going to places that I had never even heard of. At that point, I was barely two weeks into my journey; so naturally, I couldn’t get enough of her stories and was so grateful that she was willing to share them with me. In total, we probably talked for 3-4 hours and then exchanged contact information, said goodbye, and continued on our separate paths.

At the time, I had told Kristy that Australia was on my itinerary and she kindly offered me a place to stay if I decided to pass through her hometown of Wodonga. Now, there would be a lot of uncertainty for both Kristy and myself over the course of the next 3 months, so who knows if that would even be a possibility. But I instantly get a sense of people when I meet them and I knew she was someone who was sincere, and a pretty cool chic, so if I could work it out, I would certainly try to meet up with her again. Over the subsequent two months of November and December, we exchanged 2 or 3 emails. Kristy was scheduled to return home at the holidays, which she did, and by the time I reached South Africa, in January, we reconnected via email. She again offered me a place to stay but recognized that like her, by this point, I was planning day by day, so we left it up in the air.

Just after I arrived in Sydney, I realized that I wanted to see more of Australia than just one city, so I booked a flight to Cairns, and then from Cairns to Melbourne. Not long after this, Kristy informed me that there was train service from Melbourne to Sydney and it stopped in Wodonga, so once I reached Melbourne, we set the dates for my visit. It would just be two nights, but here is what ensued:

Kristy picked me up from the train station and took me to a nearby park so that I could get a scenic glimpse of her town and so that we could catch up a bit. From there, we went to the grocery store to pick up supplies, stopped by her parent’s house to borrow bedding and then drove out to the countryside. You see, Kristy had done very well for herself and previously owned a house, but sold it to travel the world… truly a kindred spirit. Since she has returned, she has been interviewing for a new job and doing some contract work, but is waiting to get an apartment until she decides on her new job, therefore, does not have a home. She is still a bit of a wanderer. Her parents, however, have just purchased a new house and have not moved into it yet, so this is where we would stay. We had a cot, an air mattress, some camping chairs, a folding table, and a fairly well stocked kitchen.

DSC04620

Over the course of two days, we swapped travel stories, lessons learned, and life’s ups and downs. We cooked together for every meal. We went on a gorgeous two-hour hike through Wodonga’s rolling hills, walked through sheep pastures, and marveled at how amazing life can be. We watched sunsets over The Weir and Hume Dam, and stared at stars from the front patio of the house. Kristy also took me to the train station DSC04624to get my ticket back to Sydney, the discount store to restock toiletries, the post office so that I could mail a postcard, and her parent’s house again so that I could borrow their scanner to upload a few documents that I needed to save electronically. These all may seem like simple things, but when you are in a different town every week, it can be hard to get them done… especially that scanner. This was Kristy’s only time off since she had gotten home and she selflessly made it all about me. My two days with Kristy were more productive than my past two weeks and I feel like I’ve made a friend for life.

DSC04645If you’re not yet amazed by the thoughtfulness of this woman, let me remind you that she only spent 3-4 hours talking to me four months ago. To top it off, without going into too much detail about her personal life, in the two months that she’s been home, she has battled sickness, lost a friend, been acting as a caretaker to her nephew and several dogs, all while juggling her contract work and interviews. Even as I write this, I am moved by her kindness and unwavering generosity to everyone around her.

So, to put your mind at rest, Kristy is just one shining example of the amazing people who I have met on my journey. And people like Kristy are the reason I never feel alone or have to do it alone. I am learning to ask for help, to accept it, and to replicate the kindness that strangers have shown to me … in a pay it forward fashion.

Most definitely revelling in gratitude.

Fight the fear and do it anyway!!

Seastar CruisesThis past week, I took a boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. I had the option to snorkel or scuba dive on the reef, but years ago, I never finished my dive certification, so I didn’t really think it was an option. It turns out, even if you don’t have a certification, you can do a beginner dive with the instructor. I thought about it for about 2 seconds and decided to just snorkel because I had prior negative experiences with diving.

You see, about 13 years ago, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I was living with 2 roommates and we all decided that it would be fun to get a diving certification. We signed up for a course, got all of our brand new diving equipment, and started our weekly classes. I realized three quarters of the way into this 6-week program that every time we were in the water, I was freezing cold. I don’t like the cold and I wasn’t enjoying the process as much as I thought I would. In addition, I was a little frightened of the dark, massive ocean filled with organisms and fish that were not well known to me. Then, out of the blue, I got sick and couldn’t finish the final class or the dive test. My roommates finished without me and by the time I was well enough to reschedule and finish during another session of the course, it seemed like too much work for something I wasn’t enjoying. It was a long commute to the center after an even longer days work and with no partners, I had no car pool lane, so that was the end of it. The agitating part was that I paid a lot of money for the course and the equipment at a time when I didn’t have a disposable income. I also don’t like quitting, so it always bothered me that I didn’t finish. For years, the equipment sat in my closet reminding me of my failed attempt. Frankly, the thought of diving now was just bringing up all of those past memories and feelings of regret and failure, so I didn’t want to dwell on it for more than 2 seconds.

Michaelmas CayWe arrived at our first spot on the reef, Michaelmas Cay, and the boat crew briefed us on the types of fish we might see, which included reef sharks, barramundi, angelfish, and all sorts of other colorful specimens including jellyfish. They completely glossed over the fact that these waters are home to the box jellyfish, the most deadly jellyfish in the world, and that this is the season they’re found on the reef. Instead, the crew showed us the smaller jellyfish variety, which rarely stings and when it does, it feels like a tingle (so they said). However, no one was allowed into the water without wearing a stinger suit. Now, I’m an adventurous person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have fear. And let me tell you, I was definitely feeling something that resembled fear. Perhaps I could best describe it as trepidation. Fortunately, it was all tangled up with excitement and curiosity, so I took a few deep breaths, pulled on my stinger suit and mask, and jumped in the water.

What I encountered was … jellyfish… dozens of jellyfish!!  No, no, it’s ok, the crew was right. This jellyfish variety really didn’t sting. And I was wearing a stinger suit. “It’s O-K”, I told myself. “Just push them away.”

AngelfishAfter I moved through the wave of jellyfish, there were stacks of coral unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There were ribbons of color, schools of the most unusual looking fish, and even things like sea worms, sea cucumbers, and giant clams!! A-MAZ-ING. I spotted a black tipped reef shark and Wally, a Maore Wrasse fish, who has now been named because he has apparently been living near this part of the reef a long time. I spent almost 2 hours in the beautiful, clear, warm water and had so much fun swimming with the fish that I actually had the thought, “maybe I should try a dive. When would I have a better opportunity without having my certification?.” As soon as I got back on the boat, I talked with the captain, crew and the dive instructor to see if they would allow me to do an afternoon dive. Our trip was broken into two different locations on the reef with two hours at each location. If you were a beginner diver, you were supposed to go during the morning session so I had to do a little convincing to assure them that I was very comfortable in the water, a good swimmer, and a fast learner. Many of you know how persuasive I can be, so I’m sure you have no doubt what comes next.

Stinger suitAs soon as we reached our second location, Hastings Reef, I was waiting with stinger suit already on. I was instructed to snorkel for about 20 minutes, come back to the boat to get my dive vest, and then we would dive for about an hour. I had to complete some basic tests like clearing my mask and my mouth piece in case water got in them, equalizing my ears by pinching my nose & blowing out, and underwater sign language. Alexa, my dive instructor, asked me to perform these tests underwater while holding on to the anchor line. Once I completed them successfully, we started our descent. Equalizing my ears was not working very well in my right ear, so our descent was slow. I kept having to come back up a few feet, try to equalize again… down a few feet, up a few feet. I was getting a little frustrated and I wasn’t familiar with the intensity of the pressure that I was feeling in my ears. The ocean was 6 meters (18 feet) deep at this location and the deeper we got, the more massive the ocean felt. I could feel a little bit of panic creeping into my body. I had just flown into town the prior day and I was just getting over a cold. What if I made a bad decision and it was too soon following both of those factors to dive? What if I couldn’t get rid of this horrible pressure in my right ear? What if I just wasted money and would have to give up? Was I really going to fail at this after finally having the courage to do it… after convincing the crew to make an exception for me? Fortunately, Alexa was fantastic. She had 10 years of experience and I was the only beginner diver with her thanks to my earlier coercion. She was literally holding my hand the entire time, had the patience of a saint, and with her underwater sign language, she got me through the descent process.

NemoOnce we reached the bottom, Alexa gave me a few moments to just take it all in. We were surrounded with all of the creatures and organisms that I had seen while snorkeling but now, I was up close and personal. Along my travels there have been plenty of moments during which I have felt so very small, but this was different. This was an environment unknown to me. I could see almost 60 meters in any direction. I was surrounded by tons of fish and coral. More than any other experience, I felt like I was inside of another world and I was just a tiny observer.  It was very important not to disturb the coral by touching it, however, Alexa did pick up a sea cucumber and encouraged me to feel it. It was squishy and slimy on the top and had short little legs all along the bottom. Next, she waved her hand over top of a giant clam so that we could watch it close up. We spotted a miniature reef shrimp and I got to see all of the colorful creatures that live in the coral. It was fantastic! Once our hour was up and our air was running low, we ascended to the water’s surface. As I stepped back up the ladder and onto the boat, it suddenly felt strange to walk on two legs after wearing fins for so long and my mind was still swimming with emotion trying to process what I just experienced.

I learned so many lessons in this one day but the most important were patience and persistence. Fear is like a compass showing us where to go. If we’re kind and patient with ourselves, we can persist, and growth happens. Here’s the ironic part…

As I was downsizing my life in preparation for my travels, I decided that if I owned anything that I had not used in the past year, it needed to go. My boots, fins, mask, and dive textbook had actually sat in my closet taunting me with failure and regret… for 13 years!!  I finally placed those items for sale on Craigslist, advertised them on Facebook, and had a yard sale. No one bought my diving paraphernalia. And somehow, I just couldn’t bring myself to donate the items either. They are actually the exception that made it into my teeny tiny storage unit. Now I know why.

Still revelling in gratitude.

A land of contradiction

DSC02563DSC02264Cape Town, South Africa has been both a pleasant surprise and a tragic contradiction all at the same time. When I first arrived, it was easy to be lured to the most beautiful sites of the city.  Camps Bay Beach and Sea Point both have fun spots for sundowners.  The VA Waterfront is always buzzing with its shops and restaurants.  Long Street, Kloof Street, and Bree Street are undeniably enchanting with their artistic shops, creatively delicious cafes and the African music that echoes from storefront to restaurant.   There’s no way to avoid a glimpse of Table Mountain around every bend or the allure of the magical tablecloth that sits on top of it.  And the panoramic views of the city from Signal Hill are gorgeous.  All of this coupled with a friendly culture, a short drive to exotic animals, and rolling vineyards made me think, why would anyone live anywhere else?

DSC02704DSC02681Then I went down the street and turned the corner to find a sprawling reminder of the recent political past, a still empty District Six, where an entire neighborhood was plowed to the ground.  The government is still trying to decide what to rebuild on the land and how to do it.  I realized that all of those displaced families now reside in “townships”, which are little more than shanty-towns with no electricity or running water on the outskirts of the city. I took a boat ride to Robben Island for a walk through the struggle of what political prisoners endured only 23 short years ago.  Then I visited wine country and realized that once I looked beyond the stunning mountains and sparkling sunsets, although apartheid has ended, there is still a significant gap between the races and there are barely any integrated neighborhoods.  When I shared half my lunch, gave my leftovers to the man on the bench, or gave a ride to the poor guy who lived so far out of town that he had to take multiple forms of public transportation to get home, I was painfully aware that not one of those folks was white.

Cape Town has so much to offer and yet so far to go to reach equality.  I consider myself a citizen of the world right now, and as such, find myself wanting to give back to a world that has so generously given to me, but it was hard to know where to start in Cape Town.  Every fiber of my being wanted to jump in and help, but I also recognized that most situations were infinitely more complex than what I was observing on the surface.  There is progress, movement, hope, and creativity and when I really stopped to absorb it all, I could feel the winds of change blowing.  There is still considerable contradiction running through the landscape but I think it is contradiction that is worth witnessing for the eye-opening perspective that it is sure to inject.

If you’ve been there, I’m curious to know what your experience was … please share!

Favorite Destinations?

DSC00412It’s so difficult to answer that question because I absolutely believe that favorite destinations change based on a time and experience continuum, but here’s how I feel right now at this point in time.  Although I always love the energy of a city and Rio and Cape Town have left undeniable impressions, my favorite destinations always tend to be off the beaten path, much more peaceful, and less well known.  I like to find the hidden gems that haven’t been over publicized in all of the travel books.

The photo to the left is from Ollantaytambo.  This is the town that I stayed in for only a night before I visited Machu Picchu.  The time was brief, but the views, history, and people were incredible.  I swear I could feel the native energy of the land much the same way that I could when I was staring down on Machu Picchu, but the difference was that far fewer people visited this place.  So, when I stayed overnight there, it felt like I was tucked away in my own little private part of the mountain.  Additionally, I arrived here in the late afternoon by bus from Cusco and sat at the top of the ruins to watch the sun set.  I had dinner in a small corner restaurant that donates a large percentage of their sales to ensure children in this rural countryside were getting school supplies and food.  I counted thousands of stars, slept in peaceful slumber listening to the waters of a creek running by my hotel, and I awoke to an absolutely spectacular pink sunrise.  That’s how I started the day of my Machu Picchu journey and it couldn’t have been any better.  So, for anyone making the journey, my recommendation would be to stay in Ollantaytambo, instead of Aguas Calientes, which is more popular, to absorb a little piece of that magical countryside the night before and the night after going to Machu Picchu.  There is a train that goes to Aguas Calientes and it is a beautiful ride and a good build up to the grandeur of what your undoubtedly going to experience.

DSC01241In Argentina, I would have to say that Iguazu Falls, one of the new 7 wonders of the world, was my favorite spot.  Again, it ended up being just a weekend gateway, and a mostly rainy one at that, but I could have stayed to listen to and stare at those falls forever.  Nature’s design here is so beautiful and the falls were so immense that I felt infinitesimal.  Unless you’re doing a driving tour of South America, to make this trip, it is best to fly, as it is nearly 14 hours north of Buenos Aires.  There are plenty of tour companies available to make arrangements and in general I found that they were well organized and provided a great experience of the park and the falls themselves.

DSC01477In Brazil, I visited a town called Paraty, which is right on the coast but also extremely close to the mountains.  It’s filled with a rich history, cobblestone streets, mason built buildings, and tons of visiting tourists and brasileiros alike.  There are several sets of waterfalls in and around the town of Paraty that are a short and inexpensive bus ride away.  The forest is so lush and alive that I felt like nature was vibrating all around me.  The falls themselves aren’t large, but the currents are strong and the water is cool and refreshing coming down out of the mountains.  With Brazil’s balmy summer weather, it felt great to jump in the water after taking in the view and the sun.  A short trail walk away from the waterfall in this picture is what the locals call “the slippery rock”.  You can see a photo of it in my Journey through Brazil and I highly recommend a visit for an entertaining afternoon.  The locals have created a new sport by surfing down the rock and it’s fun to watch or try yourself!  (caution: many walked away bleeding after slipping)  After a day amongst the trees, it was easy enough to head back to town for a lively night out.  It will remain a very memorable trip in my heart.

DSC03094Most recently, in Cape Town, after some very rowdy city nights, I decided to retreat to wine country for some peace and reflection.  I stumbled upon La Vie de Luc, a farm in Franschhoek that has a main estate, plum trees, grapevines, and very comfortable guest houses.  In general, I believe when people think of wine country in South Africa, they think of Stellenbosch, but Franschhoek and Paarl are only a 20 minute drive away from Stellenbosch and I found them to be far more inviting simply because they’re a little smaller and less crowded.  Franschhoek in particular has a main street that is situated just below the gorgeous mountains in this photo, and is lined with artistic shops and delicious restaurants.  It has a sophisticated feel that would appeal to even the most refined pallets.  It is an easy one hour drive outside of Cape Town and I would recommend renting a car because the countryside, with it’s winding roads and valleys filled with grapevines, is not to be missed.

If you have a favorite spot that is off the beaten path, I would be thrilled if you would share it here.  I don’t care if it’s in your back yard or somewhere far, far away… do tell!

The embryo of an idea

katieMany people have been writing to ask how I have managed to travel for months now in several different countries, so I thought I’d provide a little insight. My 20s were all about working, becoming an expert at my craft, and earning a good living. So far, my 30s have been all about exploring the meaning of life, determining what’s most important to me and what I want to leave behind in this world. My priorities have shifted entirely. It didn’t happen overnight, but after a progression of what I like to call small awakenings… knee surgery, a lay-off, a bad relationship, another knee surgery, witnessing friend’s struggles and triumphs, and a number of other similar occurrences. As I list these events, I realize that they may sound negative, but it’s not my intent to portray them that way. After all, my recovery after each knee surgery taught me how to better care for the body that gets me through each day, the lay-off led me to start consulting and eventually establish a business, my dear friends have taught me that the human spirit is stronger than any obstacle, and my family, my biggest supporters, have become more treasured than ever. The events themselves are what they are. It’s the lessons I’ve taken from them that have enriched my life.

As I’ve weaved my way through the twists and turns of life, I’ve thought often about my priorities and my passions and I’ve taken small steps to ensure that my priorities are in the right order for me and that I am making decisions based on what my heart desires to ensure those decisions align with my passions. Most importantly, I was determined to ensure that I pursued those passions NOW. No one can predict the future and the last thing I want to do is die thinking about all of the things I wish I’d done.

It was July of 2012 when I made the firm decision in my heart to travel the world. I think that is when I actually said it out loud as well and asked friends to bare witness. Since that time, I have calculated a rough budget and savings plan, started downsizing my life, and determining how I wanted to travel. After working for 15 years to have some of the conveniences and luxuries in life, I knew that I didn’t want to be constantly on the road and whizzing through continents just for the sake of seeing as much as I could see. I enjoy meeting new people, learning about cultures, gaining perspective and I felt that the only way to embody those things would be to choose 12 countries and live in each one for at least a month. As many of my friends and family know, I’m also not a fan of winter, so it only made sense both from a comfort and packing perspective to follow the summer. And so hatched the plan.

Month 1: drive across the country & visit family – 2 weeks; Peru – 2 weeks.
Months 2 – 12: Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Morocco, and Spain – approximately one month each.

The decision, my friends, I think, was the hardest part. Once I made the decision to do it, the rest was, and still is, all logistics. There are a ton of online resources and plenty of people who have done it before me, so there is no need to re-invent the wheel. If you want to know the specifics of my planning, just ask me, but the mental shift was what I had to lock into place.

The biggest reward so far has been a tremendous feeling of liberation. Liberation from property, physical things, the rat race, stagnation… and my eyes are opened to a diverse world filled with amazing peoples and places. Now, it’s all about revelling in gratitude.