Thursday, November 2, 2017


Scenes from my travels around the world of how our lives may not quite be all that different.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

To the People I Met Along the Way Around the World

Everyone should be so fortunate. I set out on a journey of unknown destinations two years ago, and one question I had for myself was - "Whom would I meet?" I knew I would probably stop and see certain friends in France, Ireland, England, and Japan, however who would come into my life and help change the way I see the world forever? What apparent irony to discover on a solo excursion the greatest lesson to be found in the people who choose to take the time to walk with you along the way.

It would take a book to regale you with tales of everyone I met and our times together, and I most certainly would inadvertently leave someone out if I tried. However, I have been on the receiving end of so many kindnesses while out in the world, I felt it was worth highlighting a few as this chapter of Walking Amadeus comes to a close.

Muona, Malawi
Barnabas and Henry
In rural Malawi, it is impossible for a non-African to stay for any length of time incognito. As a volunteer, I stayed in a small village with one main dirt road and not many places to go to socialize. However, there was a little hut that served maize beer and afforded one the opportunity to sit on milk crates outside with some of the locals. As someone who sticks out in a crowd on that continent, people seemed interested in discovering who I was and why I was there, and I met these two gentlemen. Breaking one of my rules of international travel - don't go places with strangers when you are completely reliant on them to get you back in one piece - I  rode bikes with them to a river in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, we had a nice time, and I was lucky to have been able to engage with them. In the end, I realized I had met two guys who had very little, but felt quite rich to be able to befriend me and share a slice of local life.

Valle D'Aosta, Italy
Susi and Roberto
Susi and I were fast friends while volunteers together in the Philippines. I enjoy people who have lively spirits and make it easier for me not to have to try to control the conversation. When I visited Milan, she introduced me to her friends, and we had a nighttime bike tour around the city. We shared an interest for food and wine, and I couldn't have been happier... or so I thought - we then went to the mountains to visit her dad. He cooked for us and I got to explore what I found to be one of the most majestic places on Earth.

Pievepelago, Italy
Chef Bagatti and Family
I met my friend Alessia also while volunteering, and she was kind enough to offer for me to stay at her family's hotel for a week. Little did I know that nestled in the mountains above Modena was a family that would take me in - not just as a hotel guest - but as new friend of the family. Signora Bagatti is the chef for the hotel restaurant, and she gave me daily lessons in her craft after my morning cappuccino. Alessia's sister, Matilde, accompanied us on excursions hiking and to a nearby old town of which her mother used to be mayor. To show my gratitude, I cooked an American-style Thanksgiving meal for the family at the end of the week. It was a splendid time.

Bangalore, India
Ritika and I were on the same team volunteering in Nepal. She is very intelligent and kind, and we seemed to get along well. I was allowed just a 72-hour visa to stay in India en route to Malawi, so I made sure to visit her. She and her friend met me out for dinner, and we must have sampled twenty different unique foods. While just a short visit, I appreciate that I had a very good experience.

Muona, Malawi
Our volunteer base in Malawi was inside the walled estate of Peter and his wife. Nearly every evening, we would meet after dinner outside for a chat. We talked about all sorts of topics, including religion, his country, the American presidential election, and others. I think he enjoyed picking my brain, and I was delighted in his perspective. As it turns out, he was also Catholic and invited me to his church for Sunday service. I feel really bad that I did not say goodbye when I left, but if somehow this reaches him, I'd like him to know that some of the best conversations of my journey were on his patio. (He is seated in the center of the photo.)

Makati, Philippines
H & J Crew
My first day in the Philippines, I went walking around the Manila metropolis and discovered that the heat and humidity of day was pretty unbearable. Luckily, there was an expat-friendly sports pub (with air conditioning) just a block from my hostel that was open all night long. The staff was so friendly that I decided to make it my hangout where I could escape the heat and watch international soccer and the NBA playoffs. The staff remembered me and made me feel at home each time, so eventually on my many consequent layovers in Manila, I made sure to visit Emy, Marlene, and Sha, as well as the others each time. They even helped me celebrate my 41st birthday.

Tacloban, Philippines
Fr. Ramil and Niño
When I knew I would be in Tacloban for some time, I asked if I could be a lector at Our Lady of Fatima Parish. From that day forward, Father Ramil (center of photo) brought me into the parish family and gave me a home away from home. He invited me on outings as well as to dinners. He would even find ways to work me into the sermons so that I was no stranger as long as I was there and made a point to try to find me a Filipina wife (so far unsuccessfully) so that I might stay indefinitely.

Niño (right) is a eucharistic minister at the church and took me in as both a friend and collaborator. We both have a passion for helping people in need in the Philippines, and it was wonderful to have someone to help explore some ideas for how to do so. He also encourages me to sing in Tagalog, which I hope the others forgive.

Tacloban, Philippines
The Grefiel Family
I was a foreigner and a near total stranger, but that did not deter this family from offering a place for me to sleep one night after a barangay fiesta. I would eventually become good friends with Maria and her brother's family of six (now seven). It was always a joy to be welcomed to visit and spend time with them.

Volunteers dressed in blue on a construction site

All Hands Volunteers
I have now been on five different projects with this organization in five different countries. Volunteers come from many parts of the world to help communities in need after natural disasters, and they are some of the finest people I have ever met. To volunteer, please visit and tell them I sent you.

Young Filipino men and women dressed in red in a church
Tacloban, Philippines
Our Lady of Fatima Parish Choir
On my last visit to the Philippines, the choir took me on a tour of the local Catholic churches as part of a special week. My friend Ray made sure I was invited. My friend Mitzi sang to me (and reprimanded me for not bringing gifts from home). The others made sure I didn't get lost, and we took lots and lots of pictures. Among of the best parts of traveling around the world were the times I was blessed to hear them all sing - very talented and friendly group of special people. I just have to remember the pasalubong next time.

To the good people I met along the way - and there are plenty others - thank you for being there, and I hope we will meet again someday. Best wishes until then.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

For the First Time Solo Traveler

Woman on a park bench surrounded by yellow and orange flowers near a tree

I have heard some reports that people tend to travel in multiples, especially internationally. Good for them - that might be interesting. Really, traveling alone has its advantages, but there are quite a few things to consider if you choose to just get away and haven't the patience to wait for someone to join you (or the tolerance for having them along).

Blend in, if you can. 
In Malawi, I couldn't pull it off, but in Spain I could. Alone or with others, you are a target, but alone you are easier prey. Yes, you - the one with the great big backpack on your back and smaller pack on your chest. The only question is whether you will be a hard target or a soft target. There are plenty of people all around the world who thrive off of the misfortunes of tourists, and you need to prepare to minimize your risk. Be mindful of your clothing choices, so as not to stand out. Study the people and try to behave in a similar fashion. Remember, if you are running from the lion, you don't necessarily have to be faster than the lion, just faster than anyone with you. Tourists will stand out, and you may not be able to avoid it, just stand out less.

Preparation is key.
Of course, learn what you can about your destination ahead of the trip, but also use your protected time in the plane, train, or hotel to get your bearings so you don't have to break out the guide book or spend all your time on your smartphone out in public. I carry a small moleskine notebook in my pocket where I can put directions and notes; it's light enough to take everywhere and doesn't scream tourist.

Know your vulnerability.
Your first 24 hours in a new country or city are your most vulnerable. Try to have a flight that arrives in the daytime. Ports of arrival - airports, train stations, bus terminals - have people looking for travelers out of their element, and that's you. Arrange ahead of time how you will get to your hotel, and you will save yourself problems and frustrations. If an acquaintance can meet you there, even better. Otherwise, many of these places have information counters staffed with people whose job is to help you. While I can write a whole section on taxis, it's usually best to spend the money on a reputable service that can save you from walking the streets of a strange place alone with your luggage. Get a good grasp of the currency and what things should cost, because plenty of vendors will attempt to overcharge you. Also, once you are on your way in a new place, act like you have been there 50 times, so at least your apparent confidence makes you a harder target.

Talk to strangers?
Yes, your mother told you not to do that, and often it is good advice, but if you traveling solo, you will be very lonely, and you will miss out on much of what travel actually is. A good rule of thumb is be wary of strangers who come talk to you. Odds are if you choose the stranger, he/she is probably not a serial killer, and you might be surprised by some kindness and/or good advice. Also beware of anyone who asks you too many questions, and do not give out much personal information; feel free to make up some details if you want and have some fun with it. Often I will pretend not to speak English, which makes escape of nosey strangers easier.

Find your niche.
For me, it is restaurants. For you, it might be art museums. Go where you feel comfortable and have knowledge of your surroundings. This seems like a no-brainer, but use these places to get familiar with the new city and pick the brains of the people working there. It's like being part of a club, because these are your people, and having people in a foreign country is tremendously valuable.

This should be number one, but I am biased. Opportunities will likely only be available if you arrange ahead of time, and you should also take the time to properly vet an organization. Volunteering in a foreign land is one of the best experiences you can have in a new place. While you should do this because you actually want to help in some way, it can provide you with experiences you would have never found otherwise as a tourist. Also, you may make some great friends who are just excellent people.

Go to church.
Okay, obviously if you are not religious (or atheist) and not interested, this is not for you. However, many people have some connection to a religious institution. If that's you, take an hour on your given sabbath and check out the local service. You will likely be in a safe place, often historic and beautiful, surrounded by people trying to save their souls. Again, membership has it's privileges. Even if you are not a member, you are probably welcome and might even get some free coffee and cookies out of the deal. If you're lucky, they may ask you to read during the service and/or take you out to karaoke.

Location, location.
First of all, DO check in with a family member or friend from time to time; in case you do go missing, that makes it easier to track you down. DO tell your bank and credit card companies where you will be, so they don't cancel access to your money. DO register with your government or local consulate, in case of natural disaster or some other emergency. US citizens can easily register on the State Department website.
However, be careful how much information you put on the internet about your whereabouts. Do you really want a stranger to be able to look on Instagram and see in real time that you are an attractive woman on her third shot of tequila at your exact location?

Think when you drink.
Odds are, at home you have drinks with friends and at places you know. You know your risks there. In a foreign country, it's a different story.

Manage travel fatigue.
Odds are if you are in a foreign country by yourself, you don't mind a little down time and lack of conversation. Also, you enjoy wandering and discovering all that world travel has to offer. However, you may find that the stresses (and sometimes unfortunate circumstances) of long-term travel can add up after a few weeks alone. Don't feel like you have to be on the go all the time. If you are gone for a month, it's okay to go see a movie or drop in to McDonald's for an American coffee and a Sausage McMuffin. It's okay to take a day and just read by the river. Spend a little time with a change of pace doing something you enjoy, even if it's not something that that culture is known for.

Don't let any of the above dissuade you.
Maybe you have never traveled alone before, so the mere prospect seems a little daunting. If it's your first time, go somewhere you can speak the language. Go where you have studied or have some professional experience to which you can relate. If you can, go somewhere that you know someone - that doesn't mean you have to spend all your time with them, but it's great to have a contact. Go somewhere with a purpose, and the trip will all come together. Most places are scarier until you get there... and then you won't be able to imagine your life having never been.