When sequestration hit this federal employee with a self-diagnosed travel bug, there was really no other logical thing to do than plan a furlough-cation on a budget. I'd been itching to dive, since it had been about a year since my last SCUBA adventure, and since Nick isn't a diver, it made perfect sense to take my extra (unpaid) time off without him and head to the nearest, most affordable diving spot. One Facebook post later, and I was pretty much convinced that the Honduran Bay Islands were the place to go.
While mainland Honduras doesn't attract a ton of visitors compared to its Central American neighbors, the Bay Islands are most definitely a destination. There are several islands off the Caribbean Coast of Honduras that make up the Bay Islands, but the most well known are Roatán and Útila, and as I quickly discovered, diving is the main attraction here. Located near the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef!), it's no wonder people come from all over the place to dive here.
So I found a free flight using frequent flier miles (Delta and United each had one for 35,000 RT!), decided to stay in a bungalow near the nicest beach in Roatán and dug up my PADI ID. I mentioned to my mom that I was headed to somewhere that had a stretch of sand, and she immediately wanted in, so off we were!
I am generally not a huge fan of the Caribbean-- something about it just screams cheesy, lazy package tourists, and all-inclusive resorts with no soul-- but I enjoyed a visit to Little Corn Island (off the coast of Nicaragua) a few years ago, so I thought perhaps I would not be disappointed in the Bay Islands. My mom and I were immediately relieved when we arrived and saw how casual West Bay was. Despite having a couple higher end hotels, the place just has an incredibly easy-going attitude, the beaches are not private or roped off, and tourists and locals alike play soccer on the sand, take strolls up and down the 1-mile stretch of beach, and spend the afternoon snorkeling until 4 p.m. hits and it's time to enjoy happy hour rum punch!
Our evenings were spent first watching the sunset, and then deciding what seafood we wanted to feast on. We met another awesome mother-daughter duo, Linda and Sara, who were staying at our bungalows and celebrating Linda's 60th. We immediately hit it off, and spent many evenings having dinner, trying out all the run concoctions, and singing karaoke in the nearby town of West End.
Our one day trip was to Cayos Cochinos, a nearby archipelago that is inhabited by a small community of garifunas, who've lived there for hundreds of years. Most of the islands are uninhabited, a few are privately owned, and all seem like the perfect location for a season of Survivor. We spent the day snorkeling, eating a home-cooked seafood lunch, and diving.
Speaking of diving, let's not forget the whole point of this trip: spending as much time underwater as possible. And that's exactly what I did. I dove twice a day, and the diving really was excellent. The main attraction is a plethora of colorful fish (think angelfish, parrotfish, etc.), but I saw hawksbill turtles on almost every dive, and encountered some huge lobsters, green morays, and eagle rays a few times as well. The massive corals and sponges were beautiful, and just as interesting to observe than the critters. It's hard to explain why us divers strap on heavy equipment and shell out a bunch of cash to spend 45 minutes breathing underwater, but to me it's one of the most relaxing and exciting things at the same time. It really is a whole different planet down there, one that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and gorgeous to look at. For those of you who have always been too scared to try it, I have one thing to say: my 70-year-old mom tried diving and LOVED it. She picked it up really quickly and had the time of her life. So what are you waiting for?
View the photo gallery for this post: Roatán, Honduras
We love music. It's a big part of our lives here at home, and while away we kept our ears open, always ready to find something new and different.
Music is something universal; in every city, town, and village in every country we visited we heard rhythms spilling out of restaurants, cafes, and bars; being played by buskers on streetcorners, from passing cars and in bus stations. And yet everywhere it's a little different. Sure, we heard lots of Black Eyed Peas and Jennifer Lopez (in our unscientific analysis, her On The Floor is the most popular song in the world), but when we found the opportunity to get away from this type of generic and mass-marketed music, we were rewarded with some unique, regional sounds that we would never have been exposed to otherwise.
As much as we love all the photos we took while abroad, and cherish the few small souvenirs we brought back with us, our favorite music from the trip is undoubtedly better at bringing us right back to the time and place where we heard it. So here are our seven favorite songs that we discovered on our trip, along with a memory attached to each:
(Note that if you're reading this in an email, you probably won't be able to listen to the songs. Read the post on the blog for the full experience.)
Cosmic Sidewalks by Les Mentettes
While we were pretending to be locals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we decided that a natural thing to do would be to search out some live music, like we would at home. We scoured the local arts papers and blogs, put together a list of interesting-sounding acts, researched them, and ended up seeing a fantastic concert by Les Mentettes (also, listen / download / buy more of their music from the Les Mentettes bandcamp). We loved the dynamic performance by the 30-person pop-soul orchestra enough to buy a cd, which ended up providing a soundtrack for our South African road trip.
Nyandolo by Ayub Ogada
One of the most serene and relaxing locations we visited introduced us to one of the prettiest and most serene songs we heard all year. Sitting around in Shane's candlelit living room at Terra Khaya in the Amathole Mountains of South Africa, reading or playing cards, and listening to soft sounds emanating from an iPod dock running off a solar-charged battery, we were struck by this song's beauty and sparsity.
Mfan' Omncane by Dorothy Masuka
While we slowed down our pace and spent a few days feeling at home with our lovely hosts on the wild coast of South Africa, we heard lots of music local to the Transkei, local to South Africa, and from the rest of Africa. My favorite was this gem of African jazz by a Zimbabwean-born singer who emigrated to South Africa and sang many songs--including this one--in a Kwazulu dialect. If you listen closely, you can hear her making the several different types of clicks present in Kwazulu and Xhosa words.
Tonight You Belong To Me by Eddie Vedder
We walked into a small store selling local crafts on a sidestreet in Blantyre, Malawi. While we were browsing through the paintings, clothes, gifts, and other wares, a stereo played softly. At one point a song came on with a duet sung softly over what I thought was a kalimba (the omnipresent African thumb piano). I was struck by the duo's honest and playful delivery, and asked the clerk for the name of the artist, expecting some local singer, only to learn it was a cut off Eddie Vedder's album of ukelele songs.
I credit the experience for letting me hear the song without any prejudgment of what to expect; I probably would never have given the offbeat concept album a chance otherwise.
Hene Hene by ???
In India, the two-hour jeep ride from the train station at Siliguri up into the mountains to the hill station of Darjeeling wasn't all roses: our driver got into an accident before leaving the parking lot, then proceeded to get in a fight with the driver of the car he hit, and to drive way too fast and make incredibly aggressive passes on the tiny winding roads with sheer cliffs below us. I vomited from motion sickness before the end of it.
But something good did come out of it: we shared the back of the jeep with Vince and Dida from Oregon, traveling like we were. We spent a lot of time with them over the few days we spent in Darjeeling, walking through the hills and tea plantations, and slurping up delicious Tibetan soups. In one conversation, Dida told us that she was a Polynesian dancer and was a bit distraught because she had lost to the depths of her iPod the hula music she practiced with while traveling. I agreed to take a look at it, and was able to save the songs, and in the process of copying them back to her device, ended up with a copy of them on our computer.
Listening to these songs--that I've labelled Hula for Dida--brings me right back to those frigid mornings and piping hot cups of delicious tea.
Yehjo Halka Saroor Hae by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Here's another case of hearing music taken out of context: I've been aware of Pakistan's most famous musician (and Jeff Buckley's "Elvis") for a while, but never much appreciated him until we stumbled upon what may be India's warmest and cosiest hotel, in Varanasi. We spent a lot of time in our hotel's top-floor cafe, resting, gobbling up delicious Korean comfort food, and listening to consistently great, varied, and relaxing music.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's powerful voice and hypnotic instrumentals made a great backdrop to an afternoon of bibimbap and blogging.
I Love Rock and Roll Music by Koreana Hong
Finally, this song came on while we were eating Korean barbecue with my dad in Kathmandu, and we all instantly loved it. In my dad's words, "If Kill Bill had taken place in Seoul instead of Japan, this is the song the band would have been playing in the restaurant scene."
I couldn't find the full song online anywhere without speaking Korean, so this one-minute sample will have to do.
Traveling as an American comes with a lot of baggage (pun 100% intended!); I often felt as though we were starting in the hole whenever we interacted with others just because of what's printed on our birth certificates, and that we needed to dig ourselves out by being the most polite, friendly, and humble travelers in order to be considered somewhat decent human beings, on par with fellow travelers from Europe, Asia, or Australia. The question of what it's like to travel in relatively remote and very poor places as an American is something that was on the forefront of our minds all the time, although surprisingly, it hasn't been a common question asked in the months since we've returned to the US from our travels. I'm currently reading The Lunatic Express, by DC native Carl Hoffman, who spent several months traveling around the world on some of the worst and most dangerous buses, trains, and ferries so that he could write about the experience. I came across the following passage from a chapter where Hoffman takes a local Indonesian ferry, and I think did a perfect job of describing what it is like to interact with people who have preconceived notions of Americans, to let go of your own fears and prejudices, and try not only to connect with people you meet, but to trust them and realize that the vast of majority of the time, you will be rewarded, not punished, for putting your faith in strangers.
...the more I gave myself to the world, the more I made myself vulnerable by putting myself completely at the the disposal of people and situations in which I had no control, the more people took care of me, looked out for me. At first I had thought they were taking pity on me. But over the days and weeks ahead I started to understand something else, something that had been sinking in gradually over the months. Being white American conferred on me an automatic status. I represented power. Affluence. Vast numbers of the world were poor, watched American television and films, listened to American music, but had no real contact with westerners, and if they did it was often as chambermaids, taxi drivers, waiters-- none ever sat down in their slums or ate their food. [The] question -- why wasn't I flying?-- said much. It was a question I heard over and over again. Why wasn't I in first class?Why wasn't I on an express bus? Why wasn't I anywhere but here? My fellow travelers were right: I could have been flying. I could have been traveling in first class, in an air-conditioned cabin with a soft mattress and stewards. In silence and stillness. That I wasn't was like a gift to them, a mysterious one they couldn't fully understand but that they appreciated in a way I would never have imagined. And the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me. In the weeks ahead I would accelerate what had started gradually over the miles. I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. If they drank the tap water of Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangladesh, so would I. If they bought tea from the streetcorner vendor, so would I. If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers. Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me; it opened the door, made people take me in. That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated them and validated them in a powerful way. And as Lena waved away the cushion man and Mrs. Nova insisted I share her food, I realized I was in good hands, surrounded by women with eagle eyes. I could relax; murder or robbery was the last thing I had to worry about.
For Americans used to a certain level of comfort, cleanliness, personal space, and quiet while traveling, it takes more effort, and a determined willingness to come out of your comfort zone in order to experience transport "as the locals do", but it's also one of the only ways to really experience a country and its people as they go about their every day lives. Some of the memories I most cherish now (but didn't quite cherish then!) are the crazy, hot, beyond crowded, and endless bus rides we took through Eastern Africa, for they provided a window into local life that we would never have seen otherwise, and I think we were also able to give the people we shared those rides with a positive impression of Americans, an impression that ultimately may have taken them by surprise. It is these sort of exchanges that make certain types of travel worth every day spent with a sore behind, dusty clothes, and aching back.
A year ago, around Thanksgiving, we found ourselves in Zomba, Malawi, after a bit of a rough patch of travel through Mozambique and Malawi. It was one of the few times on the trip I found myself homesick; we were really, really far from home, in a country--hell, a continent--where we had no friends or family. But we had each other, some food we rounded up from the local markets in order to make something resembling a Thanksgiving meal (a small chicken, some yams, apples, carrots, herbs and spices), and we kept reminding each other that homesickness was a small price to pay for the experience we were having. We knew all along that being away from our loved ones would be the hardest part about this year. As we began to cook our lonely Malawian Thanksgiving meal, a group of five American Peace Corps volunteers appeared out of seemingly nowhere, and our day suddenly turned into a gathering of people who were tied together not by blood, but by the fact that we were all far from home and all longed for our families and our traditions, so we were re-creating them as best we could in a foreign place. We only spent five hours or so with this group of Americans, but the comfort they brought us on that day--a reminder of the community of friends and family we had several thousands of miles away--raised our spirits tremendously.
This year's holiday was quite different from Thanksgiving 2011: we spent the day in a warm house, surrounded by family, wearing our slippers, sipping wine and cooking together. We ate more kinds of food in one sitting than most people in this world eat in a year. We consumed until our bellies hurt, we laughed until our sides hurt, we drank until we knew our heads would hurt the next day. How wonderful, I thought: to be surrounded by family; to feel comfortable in your own skin; to genuinely enjoy the company of those you're with. To feel that you could be anywhere, and it wouldn't really matter, as long as you were with people you love. There is nothing that I could be more thankful for. I know how lucky we were to spend a year away from home, exploring the unknown, and how rewarding that year on the road was and still continues to be. But I also know how fortunate we are to have a home (multiple homes, actually!) to come back to, where each day spent with those you love is an exploration of yourself and those around you; where each day, simply being wherever you are is a rewarding experience in itself.
Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us. -Herman Melville, Moby Dick
We've now been home for almost five months, and one of the first things everyone still asks us is how the transition back to our lives in DC has been. The short answer is that it was surprisingly easy. We've settled in well; the transition was actually quite a bit smoother than we thought or feared it would be. But the trip has made a profound impact on the way we see the world and our place in it.
It turns out--unsurprisingly--that all the things that make us Americans rich and comfortable are really easy to get used to. Every day we're presented with an effortless solution to even the most trivial of problems, but when we compare the excess and wastefulness of this lifestyle to those of the huge range of people we met on our trip, it forces us toward a better understanding of our place near the top of the world's economic ladder, and with that comes an extreme thankfulness and humility for what we have.
On the trip we met all kinds of people, from Western travelers like ourselves ,to locals working in restaurants and hotels that had never left their hometown, to poor subsistence farmers living hand-to-mouth, and on down to people so poverty-stricken, dejected, and abused that it was hard to even identify them as humans. We visited small villages where if you only have one thing, you're considered rich: if you have a pot, you can make money by selling some food on the streets of your town; if you have a shovel, you can make money by digging ditches; if you have a small screwdriver you can fix watches and eyeglasses from your stoop. Some of the people we met that had the least were some of the happiest and most hardworking people we came across, and these memories remind us that none of the things that have the potential to make us truly happy can be seen, touched, or bought; none of the things that have the potential to give our lives fulfillment are material things.
Coming back to our own lives, these memories and the lessons we learned from the people we met encourage us to view the things around us in a new light. They force us to consider the things we need to be happy, and what we have the potential (even the responsibility) to do to make the world a better place than it was when we got here. Perhaps more than making us hopeful for the future and our contribution to it, these memories make our relationship with our country, our city, and even our apartment a complicated one, and maybe this is the most important lesson we learned on the trip: to look at things critically, to consider our place in all the systems in which we participate, from the hyperlocal to the global. We're trying our best to take the opportunities given to us by chance and make the most of them. If we're looking at the world differently, and trying to think deeply to consider our place in it, we're also trying to find ways to put the conclusions drawn from such considerations into action. While we've always been aware of these things, we're trying more than ever to pay more attention to what we eat, to our waste, to trying to find extra ways to be (globally) responsible: taking that extra second to consider our options when we need to buy something: do we really need it? Which option uses the least packaging? Can we get one that was made locally?
Sometimes I miss being a traveler, the freedom of waking up every day and deciding where to go and what to do. I miss the feeling of awe and splendor, the total jaw-dropping beauty of what's around every curve in the road, waking up after an overnight bus ride to see the fascinating place we've wound up in. Part of making the transition back to lives as upper-middle class Americans is keeping that sense of adventurousness: finding things in our own city, in our own neighborhood, in our own home to look at in a new way; to be excited by them in a new way. I've come to look at each day as an opportunity to learn something new or see something I've never noticed before, and to carry that sense of adventure through the journey of each day.
As 2011 draws to a close, and our trip has entered its second half, we thought we'd give you some stats on our journey so far. We're blown away to learn some of these numbers, and can't wait to see what happens to them before the end of the trip!
10 countries visited
9 islands visited (8 in the Galapagos, 1 in Mozambique)
18 national parks visited
13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited
18,000+ kilometers traveled on surface transportation
8 forms of transportation to get from A to B (bus, minivan, train, truck, airplane, bike, horse, boat)
12 bus rides that lasted longer than 10 hours
21 hours on the longest bus ride
3 times we've hitchhiked
4369 photos and videos taken
21 weeks spent below the equator
14 types of meat we've eaten, that we know of (beef, pork, chicken, lamb, venison, wild boar, alpaca, guinea pig, ostrich, kudu, springbok, wildebeast, impala, warthog)
4 countries in which we've seen flamingoes (Ecuador, Bolivia, Mozambique, Tanzania)
2 times people have guessed Claudia is from Oregon based on accent (?!)
1 attempted mugging (Colombia)
1 attempted pickpocketing (Colombia)
3 Dollars Nick has spent on haircuts
33 Dollars Claudia has spent haircuts
3 haircuts we've each given each other
3 times Claudia has used a hair dryer
5895 meters above sea level at the highest altitude we've been
30 meters below sea level at the lowest altitude we've been
December 25, Christmas Day, marks six months that we've been on the road, and we thought we'd mark the occasion by sharing our thoughts about the time behind us, and what still lies ahead.
We've had a fantastic and nearly surreal time so far. We've been to so many places we never thought we'd see in our lives, experienced so many incredible things, spent time with some amazing people, undertaken and overcome some personal challenges, and had so few setbacks that they hardly bear mentioning. We feel incredibly lucky that we're able to have this experience each day that goes by.
One of the biggest surprises for us has been how short a year actually is (or maybe we're surprised at how big the world really is). Everywhere we go we find places that are worth spending much more time in than we're able to, and places we promise ourselves we'll return to. Many people see our pace as a fast one, but it's working for us; we're not bored or tired of exploring, not getting on each others' nerves too much, and, frankly, we often get itchy if we stay in one place for too long. One person we met described our approach as "window shopping", and we think that's apt: with this plan we're able to experience a tremendous variety of different environments, landscapes, cultures, food, music. It's hard to describe, but as we see more places and do more things, the similarities everywhere we go become much more apparent than the differences.
The hardest change from our "normal" lives has not been an adjustment to comfort level, language barriers, or the inability to find luxury items such as good beer and cheese; it's our friends and family that we miss most. We absolutely love to hear from you and how you're doing, and there is nothing that brings a bigger smile to our faces than receiving an email from our loved ones. We're lucky to be traveling in an era where long-distance communication (email, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, etc.) can make 10,000 miles feel much shorter. We know many of you are reading about our experiences, and some of you often email us after reading a post to tell us what you think of our latest adventure. We love receiving comments on our posts, whether it's because you have a question about where we've been, a reaction to what we've written, or just want to say hello. So please keep up the communication, or drop us a line if you haven't before.
At the halfway point of the trip we'd like to ask what we can do better, and what you're curious or interested about. Are there are any questions about our trip we can answer? Is there anything you've been wondering? What parts of the trip should we talk more (or less) about? Please, we'd love to hear what you think!
Here are some of our favorite memories from the first six months. Thank you all for reading!
More like Empanada de Aire. No wonder they were ten cents each. Mot disappointing empanada ever!
We've really enjoyed traveling in South America. We're only in our third country so far, but we've definitely noticed some things that make us smile, laugh, and/or curse under our breaths while still chuckling. In no particular order:
- Shopping. Need Q-tips? Batteries? A blender? Socks? Then you're in luck! Just walk down the block and you'll find someone selling all this and more! Don't bother going to any stores; pretty much anything you can think of is sold on the street. All you have to do is stroll around town and in no time you will have found anything you need, at a very good price of course!
- the bane of our existence in our volunteering experience in the Galapagos). In Colombia especially, sliced fruit was sold on every street corner. Mango with salt, coconuts sliced open and served with a straw, bananas galore... Fruit. Fresh fruit is everywhere, and it's delicious. The selection of fruit at most markets is better than any you'd see in a store in the U.S. Freshly squeezed fruit juice is the norm for breakfast every day. Some of our favorites have been maracuya (passion fruit), piña (pineapple), and mora (similar to raspberry, and yes, related to the plant that was
- Bakeries. The tempting and delicious smell of panaderias fills every city. You're not even hungry, but you walk by one, and find yourself buying a roll or empanada anyway (after all, they cost about ten cents each). Unfortunately, almost all the bread is white, but it smells so good that we'll forgive that.
- Chicken. Everyone owns a few, and everyone knows how to cook them really well. You're in the middle of a city, yet you still wake up to the sound of roosters at 4 am. The good news is, those huevos and pollo you're eating could not be any more local!
- Ice Cream. Everywhere. All the time. We saw a family of four carrying five cones, which just about sums up South Americans' love for ice cream. It is sold everywhere: the park, the bus station, every corner store, ladies with coolers who board the bus every time it stops to sell you a popsicle. It's hard to go a whole day without buying a cone.
- Karaoke. Wow, people in Ecuador love to sing. They sing with all their heart, mostly Spanish love songs, at all times of the day and night (it's happy hour somewhere, right?). It makes them happy, and I love them for it. (And I'm glad they're behind the mic instead of me!) While we're talking about music...
- Salsa, Reggaeton, and Bad Covers. It's 2 a.m. You're on a 9-hour overnight bus. You can't sleep. Why? Because either salsa or reggaeton is blasting through the speakers. No one seems to mind, except you, and the one or two other gringos on the bus. If you're really lucky, the occasional reggaeton is remixed with American 1990s hits, such as Ace of Base, or that "I Got The Power" song. Or, if the bus driver is feeling mellow, you'll get a to hear a CD of American love songs covered in Spanish.
- Action Movies. Speaking of bus rides, the other reason you probably aren't sleeping on a South American bus ride is due to the loud straight-to-DVD-Spanish-dubbed action movies being shown. As I write this, I am on a bus, and Cats vs. Dogs II: The Revenge of Kitty Galore is blasting. If you're wondering what happened to Chris O'Donnell's 'career', I believe this may have been the end of it.
- 'Express' and 'Direct' Service. All buses in Colombia and Ecuador are both 'direct' and 'express'! It's awesome. Until you realize after a few bus rides that they all stop everywhere, for anyone, and there is no such thing as 'direct' or 'express'. It doesn't matter if the bus is full, people will board from the side of the highway and stand for the duration of a 4-hour bus ride. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the kids squatting in the aisle next to you will get motion sickness and start throwing up. It's all part of the adventure... (Note: Peru has some of the nicest buses I have ever seen. The seats recline all the way, there are foot rests, there is a hostess serving you snacks, and when they claim to be an 'express' service, they actually are!)
- Landscapes. The sensory overload on most bus rides is enough to keep anyone busy/insane, but the real treat is the stunning scenery out your window. Almost every drive has been pretty-- beautiful mountains, valleys, and rivers have provided for gorgeous backdrops to these rides. It's like watching a postcard from your seat.
This is totally unrelated to our trip, but it brought huge smiles to our faces, as it reminded us of our wonderful wedding weekend while we're far away from our friends and family: Style Me Pretty featured our wedding- check it out here!