data Bisbocci Abroad
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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand--Welcome to the Land of Smiles

                "Ladies and Gentlemen, the forward boarding door is now closed...." I heard the lead flight attendant call out over the PA. 
                 I let the reality of his words sink in. The door was closed, the plane was about to push back and I had no choice now but to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. I was going to Thailand. 

                I've traveled a lot in my life. Studying abroad in the Middle East, living in Africa and now working for the airlines has given me a window to the world and has allowed me to experience more than I ever dreamed of. But, perhaps the largest thing missing from my travel repertoire until this point was solo travel. 
                Sure, I'd wandered around alone on layovers throughout Europe, the United States and even in Dakar. I'd spent a year living in a village in the Namibian bush and would go alone from town to town in order to run errands and visit friends. 
                But none of these experiences seemed to equate to solo travel in the way I imagined. In my head, I pictured setting off with few concrete plans, staying in hostels and meeting other likeminded backpackers along the way. I was incredibly excited about the freedom that being alone would provide. Yet, I could't quite rid myself of the nagging worries that burrowed deep down in the pit of my stomach.
  
                 When I arrived in Bangkok and stepped out of the airport, however, my anxiety seemed to dissipate into the muggy air. 
                  Bangkok is incredibly accessible and welcoming, while still maintaining an air of excitement. It is exotic yet familiar, chaotic yet navigable. The food is fantastic and incredibly inexpensive. It is a city chalk-full of sites and activities that can keep wanderers entertained for days. 
                    The city is intoxicating. Dazzling spires rise from behind gritty buildings. Quiet shrines sit tucked away behind glitzy glass shopping malls and orange-clad monks weave their way through a chaotic jumble of honking cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks
                  
               I only had one day in Bangkok before hopping on a flight to Krabi for a few days at the beach. And, as the focus of my return to Bangkok at the end of my trip would be centered around reuniting with an old friend, I spent my first day in the city primarily engaging in touristy activities. 
                  At sunrise, I set off with an American traveler I met upon arriving at my hostel. Our first stop was Wat Pho--one of Bangkok's oldest temples and home to the famous reclining Buddha.  


Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
              We were struck by the grandeur of Wat Pho and ogled at the intricate stupas, the ornate roofs and the thousands of Buddha statues littering the compound. It seemed that we could have spent the whole day wandering about the immense complex. 
                  I'm not so sure what I expected to find at Wat Pho. Likely, I was anticipating finding a single structure housing the famous Buddha. But there were numerous temples to visit, countless nooks and crannies to discover and, the best part is that we did not have to dodge swarms of camera-toting tourists or crane our necks trying to admire the architecture over a sea of people. 
                  I am sure that Wat Pho is not usually so deserted. As one of the most significant attractions in one of the world's most touristy countries, I can only imagine that crowds can be quite common. But this particular morning it was just us, the groundskeepers, an odd tourist or two and scores of orange-clad monks tending to their daily prayers. 

Young Monks in Training
            While my travel companion and I had Wat Pho relatively to ourselves and enjoyed meandering around the premises in quiet, the whole rest of the world seemed to be a block away at the famous Grand Palace. 
                The Grand Palace, too, is impressive and surely merits the attention it receives from the thousands of guests every day. 
                  I was not able to get great photographs of the Grand Palace. In some parts of the structure (such as the iconic Temple of the Emerald Buddha) photography is strictly forbidden. I tried to capture parts of the outer structure on camera, but every single photo I took seemed to be basked in blinding sunlight. 

Grand Palace, Bangkok
                Walking around Bangkok was thrilling, but it was also incredibly draining. The sun shone so brightly and humidity was so strong, that I had to constantly wipe sweat from my brow and peel my clothing from my sticky body.
                  Around lunch time, my travel buddy and I ventured to an shaded restaurant along the infamous Khao San Road, for a plate of Pad Thai and an ice cold beer.



          Khao San Road is the heart of Thailand's backpacker culture. Lined with cheap accommodations, eateries and stores selling anything from tailor-made suites to pirated DVDs, the street pulsates with life. It is the party place for young travelers, yet also acts as a transportation hub for tour companies and local tuk-tuks drivers. 
                   I imagine that the street must come to life even more at night. However, I did not return to Khao San Road in the evening, because I had a dinner appointment with an old friend who was a Thai exchange student at my High School. 
                    We ate dinner at the Siam Paragon--an enormous modern shopping complex that rivals anything I have seen in the United States or Europe. 
                   The Siam Paragon, Khao San Road and the beautiful religious shrines throughout the city are examples of what make Bangkok so unique. The city is a place where polarities collide. A place where one can get lost in the organized chaos of what is arguably one of the most dynamic urban areas in the world. 

                   Thailand's nickname is "the Land of Smiles" and, after my first day in the country, I could certainly see why. The people are incredibly friendly, the sites are beautiful, the hostels are chalk-full of fellow backpackers and the food is simply tantalizing. What's not to love? 
                     I cannot imagine a better place to break into the world of solo travel. 
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Monday, February 9, 2015

Tel Aviv

            I first visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the Spring of 2011, during my semester abroad in Amman, Jordan. Though I didn’t spend long in the Holy Land, my three day stay was both rewarding and memorable. I remember being at once struck by the incredible history of the country and saddened by the palpable tensions that I witnessed firsthand. I remember feeling a sense of wonder as I visited some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I remember the lack of words I could muster after a visit to Hebron, in the West Bank. 
              My visit to the Holy Land stuck with me. And not because of a certain religious conviction or sense of pilgrimage, but because it allowed me to make my own sort of sense out of what I was reading on the news, learning in class and hearing from the many Palestinian refugees living across the border in Jordan. 
             Throughout my visit to the country, I tried to view the conflict between cultures and religions in the most objective way possible. Yet, I remember finding it difficult to come to terms with the lasting effects of my country’s unwavering support for the Israeli government. Especially after visiting Hebron. Back in 2011, I had heard heartbreaking accounts of life under Israeli occupation, both from people I interacted with in the West Bank, as well as from those who were forced to flee across the border to Jordan. 
             But I knew that I was only witness to one side of the story. Traveling to Tel Aviv on a two day layover was my chance to hear from the Israeli side.


         But Tel Aviv was not like the Israel I had visited a few years before. In this modern and cosmopolitan city, the palpable tensions I remember feeling in Jerusalem and the West Bank did not—at least on the surface—seem to permeate every aspect of daily life. The barriers (both physical and metaphorical) between Jews and Muslims were seemingly less visible. 
             I was struck by Tel Aviv's vibrancy. The secular and modern capital city pulsates with life and is filled with a joie-de-vivre that, momentarily, allowed me to forget the greater struggles of many living within Israel’s borders. 

Old Port of Jaffa

New Tel Aviv
                 My airline puts its crew members up on the beautiful stretch of beach that runs from Tel Aviv's steel high-rises to the picturesque and perfectly preserved ancient port of Jaffa. 
             I immediately understood why so many people love the Tel Aviv layover. Though the October weather was beginning to bring colder temperatures to New York, Tel Aviv was a balmy 80 degrees. Ocean breezes blew in from the Mediterranean, creating an ideal temperature for dipping in the warm waters, walking along the beachfront and meandering the city's streets. 
                On my layover, I met up with Rachel, a friend I knew from high school in Eugene. Rachel, like me, has an overwhelming desire to see the world and has spent the last few years living and traveling throughout the Middle East and Central America. For the past year or so, she has been living in Magaan Michel--a Kibbutz north of Jerusalem. 
             I toyed with the idea of visiting Rachel's Kibbutz and knew that it would give me a wonderful window into the life of many Israeli Jews. But, since this was my first time in Tel Aviv, I thought it best to get my bearings of the city and to save a day trip to the Kibbutz for a different layover. 
                After all, Tel Aviv itself--with its beautiful oceanfront promenade, its colorful market and its charming old town--has more than enough to keep me entertained for a few days. 

Doorway in Jaffa
           Rachel and I walked along the oceanfront toward Jaffa on the evening of my first day in town. The walk afforded us the opportunity to catch up on life since high school and to share stories about college, teaching, traveling and living off the beaten track. 
          The Tel Aviv beachfront was the perfect backdrop to our conversations and a wonderful place to watch life unfold. It is a hub of frenzied activity--an eclectic mix of surfers and beach bums, children playing in the parks, families strolling along the promenade and men flexing their muscles in hopes of wooing the young, bikini-clad ladies. 
           As we neared the port of Jaffa, more conservative dress began to replace the bikinis. Families clustered around the grassy lawn near the ocean and the scent of grilled meats wafted in the air. I began to hear more conversations in Arabic and fewer and fewer in Hebrew. 
            The demographics shifted the closer we got to Jaffa, but never did I feel the tension in the air that was omnipresent in Jerusalem. Never did I feel the metaphorical barriers. Or witness the physical ones. 


                As I spent the better part of two days walking the city's streets, emptying my wallet to buy fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice from the market stalls and savoring the perfect Mediterranean weather, the city filled me with a sense of hope for the country's future. 
              I know this hope is born out of a certain degree of naiveté. I know that the conflict is more deep-rooted than I will ever understand and that, despite the apparent openness and peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims in Tel Aviv, the tensions run deep. I know that even Tel Aviv is not immune to outbursts of violence and isolated terrorist attacks that threaten the fabric of Israeli society. Or to the systematic undermining of Palestinian freedoms. 
            Yet, it was also apparent to me that the secular and progressive capital of Israel is more openminded and forward thinking than its conservative and deeply traditional counterpart, Jerusalem. To me it appears to be a city tired of war. One that is facing the future with perhaps a more inclusive and embracing outlook. 
          In the end, Visiting Tel Aviv did not answer any questions I had lingering about the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land or on the continuing occupation, but it did reveal something that filled me with hope--that coexistence and peace in a country so often fraught with violence actually is possible. 
          Now, whether that peace is actually achieved and sustained, is an entirely different story. 
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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Finding Paradise in San Blas

            Imagine a place where palm-fringed islands lay virtually untouched by modernity and where turquoise waters are impossibly clear. Where thousands of tropical fish swarm above ribbons of colorful reef and where a simpler pace of life prevails. And imagine that the only sounds to be heard are those of the waves gently lapping beaches of powdery-white sand, in a world devoid of cars and roads and concrete towers. 
                Though such a description may seem like a rendering of paradise, I found that such a place exists--not merely in my dreams--but also in the remote archipelago of San Blas, East of Panama City. 
                 Dan and I visited the San Blas Islands on a three day tour at the end of our stay in Panama. When we set off on our excursion, we didn't initially know what to expect. I had read countless reviews of the islands online and much of what I read was surprisingly negative. People complained that the islands were too crowded, too covered in trash and the locals too pushy. 
           What I read about the tours to the islands was also quite discouraging. So much so, that we decided to book our tour with Panama Travel Unlimited at the last possible minute, after much hesitation. 

                 But when Dan and I arrived in San Blas, we found that we could not relate to any of the complaints we had read online. The islands were so pristine and beautiful, so untouched, that it felt as though we had drifted into the pages of Robinson Crusoe. 
                  Our home base during our three days in San Blas was the tiny, palm-fringed Hook Island, which is about the size of a football field and and covered by an umbrella of palms that provide respite from the relentless equatorial sun. The island's white sands disappear into turquoise waters that are home to a myriad species of brightly colored fish. 

              Our tour through Panama Travel Unlimited included lodging in a tent, three meals per day (fish and rice) and daily transport to the surrounding islands. On the first day, we visited Dog Island--a pristine patch of sand with a particularly expansive beach. 
                  For the first few minutes after we stepped foot on the island, I remember hearing nothing but the clicking of cameras and the occasional "wow" or "Oh my God."The island left us speechless with its crystalline waters, its swaying palms and its blanket of thin, snow-white sand.  
                Yet, we would grow quite accustomed to such surroundings, as each day that we spent in the San Blas Islands, our Kuna guide would take us to a different islet or remote cay.                       
View from Dog Island                         
Dog Island 1
              On the following day, after snorkeling for much of the morning around the impressive shipwreck off the coast of Dog Island II, the deep blue skies turned grey and gave way to a constant drizzle that lasted the entire day. 
                   Since the islands lack any place to escape the rain, we spent the majority of our second day exploring the coral reef and chasing brightly-colored fish around the mazes of colorful coral. 
                  It was not until the third and final day that the skies cleared up and allowed us to once again soak up the rays of the sun and lounge in the sand. We spent our last day on Pelican Island--perhaps the most unspoiled and pristine beach I have ever set foot on.

Pelican Island
Pelican Island
               Every afternoon and evening, after touring the surrounding islands, Dan and I would explore the reef, lounge in the hammocks and mingle with our new friends, Manuel and Sally. We would watch mesmerizing sunsets and sometimes see dolphins splashing in the distance. At night, when the sun went down, we would gaze up at the canopy of brilliant stars and run our hands through the soft sands--watching the beach sparkle with phosphorescent plankton. 
                  Perhaps it was due to the fact that we decided to visit at an unpopular time of year, but we found the islands to be devoid of the throngs of tourists I had expected. They were so immaculate and untouched, that it seemed as though we had our own private patch of paradise. 

Sunset from Hook Island
              Travel planning tools like Tripadvisor and Thorn Tree can be of wonderful assistance to travelers. Yet, my visit to the San Blas Islands revealed their limitations. In a community of travelers with such diverse needs, wants and likes, it is impossible for one person's experience to mirror that of someone else. 
              For people looking to explore the islands in luxury, a visit with Panama Travel Unlimited to the remote San Blas will likely leave some disappointed. Even as we stood gawking at the beauty of our surroundings, we overheard fellow travelers complain about the lack of hot showers, air conditioning and nightclubs on the island. 
               But for those looking for a rustic and authentic experience in paradise, a three day tour of the San Blas Islands is simply unforgettable.       
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Kuna People

                      We ended our ten days in Panama with a visit to the idyllic and remote San Blas Islands off the southeastern coast of the country. The islands--also known as the Kuna Yala--are a group of over 360 picture-perfect white-sand islands the dot the Caribbean waters along Panama's coastline.
               Strung across the emerald sea and blessed with snow-white sand, most of these islands are so small that they consist of nothing but a few coconut trees and perhaps a fisherman's shack or two. 
                    The picturesque islands are so stunning that one would expect them to be overrun with tourists. Yet, most of the islands stand untouched, save for a lopsided reed shack inhabited by a Kuna family. 
               The Comerca de San Blas is a semi-autonomous region of Panama that is governed by the Kuna--an indigenous group known for their colorful colorful dress and for their intricately embroidered textiles called molas. The Kuna have a long history of resistance toward western influences. Many regard them as one of the most fiercely independent ethnic groups in the world. 

Traditional Panamanian Molas

                                     

                 During the beginning of the twentieth century, Panama's government attempted to suppress the unique and colorful Kuna culture. It tried to ban the Kuna from wearing their traditional dress and attempted to dissolve their religious practices. Yet, the indigenous group faced the government with bitter resistance and revolted in what became known as the Tule Revolution of 1925.
               After the Kuna rebellion in 1925, the Panamanian government granted the ethnic group semi-autonomy of the San Blas Islands. This autonomy gave the Kuna the ability to create their own internal laws and policies under the jurisdiction of Panama's government.
                The relative inaccessibility of the islands is due in part to their isolation from mainland Panama and in part to the fact that the Kuna people have tightly controlled the influx of visitors.  The Kuna people have fought fiercely to protect their land from foreign investments and influence and, thus, all lodging and transportation must be organized from within the community. 
                  As a result, there are no foreign-owned resort chains on the islands. Nor are there expat-run guesthouses or hostels. In fact, the only way to visit the San Blas Islands and stay overnight, is to participate in a homestay or to sleep in a tent or reed shack set up by a member of the Kuna tribe. 
Reed Shack, San Blas
               The story of the Kuna is an indigenous success story and staying on an island with a local family can be a window into the daily life of this fascinating culture. In a world where indigenous voices have often been suppressed or squandered for political and economic gains, it was refreshing to visit a place where the native people had such control over their own destinies. 
                And for us, as tourists, it was comforting to know that the money we spent while on the islands was falling directly into the hands of the community. 
                In a world where "getting away from it all" often means trapping oneself in an all-inclusive resort and remaining as disconnected as possible from the local population, it was wonderful to go somewhere that was both so culturally enriching and so utterly beautiful. 


    
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Broken Buses and Casco Viejo

                 Looking back on my last few years of traveling and living abroad, I feel that some of my most memorable moments have been while I was on the road. Literally. 
                 Travel--as in the actual means of getting from one place to another--can be the most stressful part of a vacation. But it can also be the most unforgettable. I don't think I'll ever be able to forget the train of terror in Moldova. Or the ten hour, 120 mile journey across the Botswana/Zimbabwe border. Or the combis I took in Namibia to get between towns, the hitchhiking to remote villages and the nights spent on airport floors while flying standby
                 All these moments--while frustrating at the time--have given me a greater perspective of the ins and outs of daily life in other countries, while adding a dose of adventure to my travels. After all, had I not ridden in combis or on pickup trucks while living in Namibia, I would likely have a much murkier sense of how most Namibians get from village to village. If I had opted to take a plane rather than a rickety Soviet-era train from Chisinau to Kiev, I would have never been transported back in time to Eastern Europe in the 1970s. 
             On my trip to Panama with Dan, I had yet another adventure while trying to traverse the country by bus. And though I slept through most of the blasting air conditioning at the start of our journey, the suffocating heat that entered the bus after it broke down and the hours we spent on the side of the road waiting for our replacement transport,  I could tell when I woke up that Dan hadn't been so lucky. 
                The ride back from Bocas del Toro introduced him to life on the road and on a budget. But it also reminded us that, though Panama has a growing economy that is relatively wealthy compared to the rest of Central America, the country still has a ways to go in terms of development. 
                Panama City is a modern metropolis. If I didn't know any better, I might think the cityscape was that of Miami Beach. Tall high-rises jut out of the surrounding jungle and highways bisect the maze of high-rises stretching along the waters edge. 
             


                Yet, the skyscrapers and shopping malls present just one side of Panama City. Across the bay, literally facing the towering glass and steel buildings, sit the crumbling facades of the city's old colonial center.  
               The historical district of Casco Viejo reminded me in many ways of Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial. The crumbling cathedrals and intricately carved buildings constitute a Unesco World Heritage Site. They are both pleasing to the eye and a reminder of the European influences on much of the architecture of Latin America. 
            Dan and I wandered the picturesque streets, peeked at the market stalls, feasted on fresh seafood and witnessed a procession of devout catholics observing a holiday for the Virgin Mary.  
              The juxtaposition between the city's old town and the gleaming new town are representative of the forces at play in the country--a country that is at once rich and poor, old and new, developing and developed. 



                  
                 By going to certain places within Panama City, one might come to the conclusion that the city's wealth is on par with the generally more affluent cities in North America. As a tourist, one is unlikely to visit the poorer areas--like the slum we passed on our way to the old city. So for us, it is moments like our bus ride--while stranded on the side of the road and waiting for a replacement bus to come pick us up in the middle of the night--that I am reminded of the progress Panama has yet to make in terms of development. 
               Getting around on local transport may not be the most popular or the most comfortable way to travel but, for me, it is certainly the most real. While sometimes it feels that I spend more time getting from place to place than I actually spend at my final destination, I'm a budget backpacker and broken buses, standby airfare and a large degree of flexibility are just a part of the adventure I signed up for. 
               Plus, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end."
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