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Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Beautiful City of Bikes and Canals

               Prostitution, sex shops and legal drugs may be what Amsterdam is most notorious for, but I can assure you that the Venice of the North has much more to offer than the opportunity to indulgence in things that are taboo elsewhere. 

                I got a call from crew scheduling to work the trip from New York to Amsterdam on my reserve days in July and was immediately overcome with excitement. I had not visited the city since 2003 and, although I had always hoped to return to the Netherlands after visiting with my aunt, uncle and cousins at age thirteen, I often looked elsewhere when planning trips due to the fact that I had already been once before. 
               But there is something to be said about returning to a place after many years and rediscovering its beauty as if for the first time. After all how, at age thirteen, was I really able to remember and appreciate one of northern Europe’s great capitals? 
              Turns out I didn't really remember much about the city at all.

Tangle of Bicycles, Downtown Amsterdam
               I arrived in Amsterdam at around 11:00am—exhausted—after having worked the long flight across the Atlantic. Since I knew very well that going straight out into the city would result in me being barely able to function by evening-time, I decided to take a nap for a few hours at the hotel before venturing into the city.
             But despite my fatigue, I could not sleep. The sun that poured through my window was too enticing for me to neglect it and, since I’d heard that sunny days in Amsterdam could be hard to come by, I wasn’t about to waste a perfect 75 degrees.
                After about an hour of tossing and turning and trying to rest despite my excitement, I set off on foot to explore the city. 
             I was hoping to get around Amsterdam by bicycle and had heard that the crew hotel had free bikes for flight attendants to use, but every time I checked in with the hotel desk, there were no bicycles left. It appeared that everyone else had had my same idea.
             So, instead, I decided to explore the city on foot, without a map. For my first time back in Amsterdam in eleven years, I wanted to reorient myself by getting lost amongst the city's streets and canals. Amsterdam is a beautiful city to explore--full of flowers, bikes and picturesque views. Like Venice, Amsterdam is a city built on water. Its numerous canals run like arteries through the city’s core and create a network of passageways that weave below bridges and between narrow buildings.
                It is impossible for one to get to know a city in merely 24 hours and, while I was able to absorb the city’s atmosphere and take in its pretty views, I left without doing most of what I had originally planned.





              Luckily, I would return to Amsterdam the next month on another last-minute call from crew scheduling. This time, I made sure I got my hands on a bicycle and set off into the countryside with my fabulous Boston-based crew after a much-needed three hour nap.
               As with my previous visit to the Netherlands, the balmy weather made for a perfect day of exploration into the neighboring villages.
                  We rode out past emerald pastures, across cow-speckled farmlands and through picturesque one-street towns to the village of Durgerdam. 
              Seeing such greenery and wide open spaces was a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of New York City. After my crew decided to turn back toward Amsterdam, I felt the urge to keep riding into the countryside and disappear into the surrounding villages for a few days. I tried not to think about having to get up early the next morning for the long flight back to Boston.



Dergerdam, Netherlands

                Perhaps it is the abundant greenery, the casual atmosphere, the notoriously overcast skies or the general affinity toward reaching one’s destination on two wheels rather than four, but I felt more at home in Amsterdam than I have felt in most other European cities. The progressive vibe, mixed with the beautiful architecture, made it feel like the perfect blend between Oregon and Italy. 
                  Amsterdam is a place that I could return to time and time again. Which is a good thing--because as long as I am working for the airlines, I have a feeling that crew scheduling will call me back. 
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Monday, August 11, 2014

The Liebster Award

                In the beginning of July, I woke up to a notification that a fellow blogger had nominated Bisbocci Abroad for the Versatile Blogger Award. The nomination came at a time when I was feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the amount of writing I had to catch up on and had, as a result, put my blog on a backburner. Nevertheless, I was honored and humbled to have received recognition from such a well-established blogger. Receiving the award gave me a jolt of determination to continue writing.
               And if my nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award gave me motivation, seeing a message that I had just been nominated for the Liebster Award--my second in two days--propelled me to finally take out my laptop and finish writing about my African tales.
            Now, more than a month later, I am finally finished writing about my adventures in Africa with WorldTeach and ready to begin recounting my adventures as a flight attendant for a major airline. 

                First, however, I believe it is time for me to give a huge thank you to the wonderful bloggers at The Travels of BBQBoy and Spanky, who have taken the time to recognize my blog. Like the Versatile Blogger Award, the Liebster Award is passed on from blogger to blogger. It recognizes fellow blogs for the quality of their content and especially tries to highlight blogs that are relatively new to the blogosphere.
              The rules of the award dictate that the nominee thank the blogger who gave them the award, nominate a list of ten other bloggers, answer a series of questions asked by the nominator and, finally, pose a list of new questions for his/her own nominees.
                After a bit of thought, I have selected ten travel blogs from my reading list--in no particular order--and posted links to them below.

                             


1. When did you start up your blog and what got you into blogging?
I began blogging while studying abroad in Jordan. Initially, I kept this blog as a record of my thoughts and as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends. I never dreamed that this little blog would follow my adventures as I studied abroad in the Middle East, traveled independently throughout Europe and taught in Africa. Now, it is getting ready to start a new phase, as it will be where I record my adventures as a flight attendant. 

2. What’s your favorite destination? And what has been your least favorite?
This is a very tough question and one I have difficulty answering. I try not to compare destinations and instead, try to find the beauty in each place I visit. 

3. What travel experience has most touched you? 
I have experienced so many touching moments throughout my travels that it is difficult to choose just one. I have nothing but positive things to say about people from around the world who have welcomed me to their countries with open arms. One of the many moments that stands out, however, came when I was traveling throughout Oman with friends during my semester in the Middle East. We had just arrived in Muscat and were looking for a taxi to take us from the outskirts of the city to the Muttrah Souk. Before we knew it, a short ride to the market ended up turning into a guided night tour around the city, and when we asked the driver what we owed him, he said "I just hope you go back to America and tell them that Oman is a beautiful places with kind people." 
           This same taxi driver drove across town the following day to return the wallet I had left it in his car. He delivered it intact, without asking for anything in return. 
            Just goes to show the kindness of ordinary people. 

4. Do you consider yourself a full-time traveller? If so, how do you finance your lifestyle of traveling and/or living abroad?
I think I fall somewhere between a part-time and full-time traveler. I definitely feel the need to be rooted somewhere and consider the Pacific Northwest to be home. That being said, I have a job that requires me to travel nearly every day and I spend much of my free time on the road as well. I guess I'm just trying to find a happy medium for the time-being. 

5. Do you get goosebumps just before arriving in a new destination? What destination made you the most nervous about visiting?
I always get goosebumps, but they are not necessarily out of nervousness. I usually get goosebumps out of excitement. I cannot think of a destination that I was particularly nervous about visiting, though I remember being a bit apprehensive when I learned that I would have to resort to hitchhiking as a method of getting around rural Namibia. 

6. What do friends/family think of your lifestyle?  Have you had to face negative reactions?
I believe my parents sometimes worry about my desire to visit far-flung places that are relatively unknown to them or deemed as "dangerous" by the media, though they have always been supportive of my decisions. I feel fortunate to have a family that not only understands my love for travel (as they are the ones who instilled this love in me), but encourages me to continue finding ways to explore the world on my own. Many of my friends are quite well-traveled as well, though I think that some of them don't quite understand why I constantly feel the need to be on the move. I believe many of them think of me as a bit stir-crazy and unable to settle down. But based on my nomadic lifestyle these last few years, I can certainly see why they might feel this way. 

7.  How do you choose your next destination? Do you have a few non-negotiable criteria for places you’re thinking of going?
Since the list of destinations I want to visit encompasses just about every place on earth, the criteria I go by when choosing where to go is pretty vague at best. I usually consider things like safety, time of year and travel costs. 

8.  What is the most important piece of advice you would give a newbie blogger?
Don't worry so much about blogger stats and about generating revenue. Instead, think more about your blog as something you will look back on one day to remember your travels. I see so many blogs out there so saturated with advertisements and sponsored posts, that it almost takes the joy away from reading them. 

9. What was your scariest moment while travelling? How did you react to it? Did it make you question your lifestyle?
I have never felt particularly in danger while traveling, though a few situations certainly had my adrenaline pumping a bit faster than usual. Getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere along a dimly lit road at night in Malawi and narrowly escaping Syria before the country fell into civil war are two instances that spring to mind, though neither was particularly frightening at the time. 

10. How often do you come home? And has travel changed you definition of “home”?
My concept of "home" has definitely shifted over time as I have lived in a variety of places around the globe. Oregon, Minnesota, Italy, Jordan, Namibia and New York are all places that I have called "home" in the past few years--although I believe in my heart that wherever life takes me, I will always, first and foremost, think of Eugene, Oregon as my home. 


Questions for my Nominees


1. When did you first begin to feel that itch to travel? Was it a particular destination you visited? A phase of your life? Or just something that you think you were born with?

2. Have you ever had an experience traveling that made you realize just how small the world is?

3. Do you prefer to visit new places, or return to your favorite destinations?

4. Is there a place that you have visited that totally blew your expectations out of the water? If so, where?

5. What is the craziest thing you have eaten during your travels?

6. If you had to stay in one country for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

7. What, besides traveling, are you most passionate about?

8. Has travel changed/redefined your relationships with friends or family?

9. What is the greatest lesson you learned while traveling?

10. If you had no budget restrictions, where would you go on vacation and what would you do there?

                                                                               ****

             As I finish up this post, I realize that I've effectively caught up with myself. I've finished my posts on Africa, passed on the blogger awards and set myself up for the next phase of writing about life on the road (or in this case, in the skies)!
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Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Farewell to Africa

           On December 29 2013, exactly one year after I set off on my journey across the Atlantic to Africa, I packed my bags one final time and said goodbye to the continent that I had called home for the past year. It was a bittersweet goodbye, filled with the sadness of leaving my Namibian friends behind, as well as the excitement of finally setting foot on Oregon soil and indulging in the comforts of home. 
              Though I was ready to move on with my life, leaving Namibia was challenging. I had grown quite fond of the children from my village and formed very special relationships with many of them. Each day, many of my little friends from the nearby primary school would come by my house for daily photo shoots, homework help and walks along the sandy village roads. 
              It was heartbreaking and painful to say goodbye to them, but on December 7th, I bid a final farewell to my friends, left the dusty floodplains of the Oshana region behind and headed into the next and final stage of my African journey. 
              Following my volunteer contract in Namibia, I decided to spend a few weeks traveling in southern Africa with my fellow volunteers. In those three weeks I spent in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, my journey took me full circle. It began with a pony trek in the highlands of Lesotho, where Mariella and I enjoyed a wonderful few days among the craggy peaks of Malealea--and effectively ended just across the border in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains. In between, I spent time with WorldTeach friends in Cape Town, explored the country's winelands and wild coastline with Dan and visited three incredible wildlife parks. 
            At the end of the trip, Dan and I found ourselves back in the Drakensberg highlands, soaking up stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The addition of the Drakensberg mountains at the end of our itinerary was a last minute decision. Dan and I had been looking for a place to stay on the road between Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park and Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport for our last night in the country and, After a quick Google search, found a place called the Amphitheater Backpackers--a bustling traveler lodge not far off the route and perfectly situated at the foot of the mountains. The lodge's positioning between the national park and the airport made for a perfect stopover on our way home. 
                The Amphitheater  Backapacker Lodge seemed to be an ideal base for exploring the area and a wonderful place to meet fellow travelers, swap stories and relax by the pool. Unfortunately, our tickets back home dictated that our time at the backpackers would have to be cut short, so we went to bed early in order to squeeze in a quick foray into the mountains the morning of our departure.  
             The Drakensberg mountains are dramatic and majestic. Their vibrant, green peaks rise above the mist-shrouded surroundings and contain hundreds of waterfalls that give life to the verdant valleys below.


            We knew that we had very little time to explore the area, so Dan and I entered the park expecting to do a quick hike up to one of the park's waterfalls. 
             When we arrived at the entrance, however, dark clouds rolled in and it began to sprinkle. Thinking nothing of it at the time, I put on my raincoat and wrapped my camera in my bag. Considering the sweltering heat and dry weather I had grown accustomed to during my stay in southern Africa, the light rain was a welcome surprise. After such a long time living in a drought-afflicted area, feeling the rain against my face was a wonderful sensation. 
            In merely a few minutes, however, my sneakers became saturated with water and I had to wrap my camera in my raincoat to keep it safe. I began to lose traction as my shoes started skidding down the slippery path and I worried that the torrents of water would seep through my bag and ruin my camera. 
                  Reluctantly, we decided to turn back toward the car. And while I wish I could have spent a bit more time admiring the peaks of the Royal Natal National Park, I like to think that the heavy rain was a signal from Oregon, telling me it was time to come home.

 

           I have now been back in the United States for seven months and my life has changed dramatically since leaving Africa. Yet, not a day goes by in which I don't think about my time living abroad. After a year of teaching in Namibia, traveling throughout southern Africa and collecting a lifetime of memories, my return to the United States filled me with a mixture of emotions that I have difficulty expressing in words. 
           My time in southern Africa presented me with some of the most challenging yet rewarding months of my life. Throughout my year, I experienced the loneliness and isolation of living in a village  away from friends and family, as well as the wonderful company of my students, the children of Onantsi and my fellow volunteers. I experienced incredible pride in my learners who made progress in English and computers as well as disappointment in those who never did their homework and scored consistently below average on their exams. I experienced emotions and feelings that I didn't even know existed. 
              Because of this, my time abroad cannot be easily categorized or compartmentalized. There are no words or phrases that can adequately encapsulate the emotions I felt, the experiences I had and the endless memories I accumulated. 
            In the days leading up to my departure from Africa, I tried to prepare a short blurb for those who would be curious about my experience, since I knew I would often be faced with inquiries and curiosity about "how Africa was." But I had no idea how to give a concise, yet comprehensive answer. 
              And seven months later, I still don't know. 
            This will be my last post about my life in Namibia and beyond as a WorldTeach volunteer. From now, this blog will take on a different trajectory and follow my adventures as a flight attendant for a major airline. 
             This blog will shift focus without me ever addressing the loaded question of "how Africa was," but I hope that by following along on my journey from the beginning, you at least have a vague idea. Perhaps I cannot easily give you a good answer to the question in a few words but maybe, just maybe, by reading about the ins and outs of my life in Onantsi village and beyond over the course of the last year, you'll begin to understand a bit more about my year abroad and what it meant to me. 
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Christmas Misadventures and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

              For most Americans, the holiday season often conjures images of tree decorating, gift-giving and wintry weather. It is difficult for many of us to imagine Christmas without also thinking of snowflakes, sleigh bells and a yearly visitor from the North Pole. And, though I remember very few years in which we actually had a white Christmas in Oregon growing up, the cold winter weather did not make it difficult to imagine a snowy wonderland outside. 
                It rarely occurred to me that, for those, living South of the equator, Christmas and snowflakes do not necessarily go hand in hand. I hardly ever thought about the fact that, for people who experience the holidays in the heat of summer, the word Christmas is unlikely to conjure images of sleigh bells, snowmen and hot chocolate by the fireside. I found it nearly impossible to imagine a Christmas with sunshine and long summer days. 
              Until 2014, when Dan and I spent the holiday season in South Africa and our notion of Christmas was flipped upside down. 

                 Once we learned that we would be spending the 2014 holiday season in South Africa, Dan and I figured we might as well spend it in the sun at a beach--since finding a winter wonderland nearby seemed an unlikely possibility. Besides, I was excited to fully immerse myself in the Christmas experience of those hailing from the lands down below. 
                 So, on Christmas day, Dan and I ventured toward a beach near the St Lucia estuary and prepared for a day of soaking up Vitamin D in the warmth of the African sun. 
                  But Christmas decided to throw a curveball our way. 
                 Shortly after we arrived at the beach, I went to change into my swimsuit and came back  to our rental car only to find Dan looking helpless and perplexed. He told me he had accidentally locked the keys inside the car and could not access them since we had just rolled the windows up. Thus, our Christmas on the beach turned into a daylong process of looking for the one locksmith in the area that would actually be open on Christmas Day. 
                  We searched the internet, asked around and twiddled our thumbs to no avail. After a while, we found a police station that was open and discussed our waning list of options with the man standing behind the desk. He flipped through the phone book and called around. Finally, the police officer was able to put us in contact with a locksmith in Richards Bay--a city more than 150km away. Since we had no other options, we spent much of  the rest of our day sitting outside the police station and waiting for the locksmith to arrive.
                Despite the lack of cold weather and holiday cheer, it was hardly the Christmas we'd imagined. 
                                                               
                                                                              ***

                 Perhaps our South African Christmas didn't go exactly as planned, but spending December 26th at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park more than made up for our misadventures the previous day. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a wildlife reserve known for its remarkable contributions to the preservation of rhinos in southern Africa. It is the oldest nature reserve in Africa and spreads for nearly 1,000 square kilometers over the hilly, lush terrain of Kwazulu-Natal.  
                 If we had come to South Africa and only visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, it would have probably been difficult for us to understand the country's dire rhino poaching problems. The park is chock-full  of these beautiful animals. 
          In the early 1900s, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi spearheaded a preservation campaign that is largely responsible for bringing the white rhinos back from the brink of extinction. Yet, rhino poaching is still a major problem in South Africa. Every year, poaching claims the lives of hundreds of animals whose horns are sold in Asia for medicinal purposes. Though rhino poaching is illegal, the demand for rhino horns is so great that selling them in the black market remains a lucrative business. 
              The park has not entirely escaped the poaching problems that plague the rest of the country, but Hluhluwe-Imfolozi still boasts the highest concentration of rhinos in the world. Throughout the day we would encounter these majestic horned animals on numerous occasions.

Rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
                   Although the park is known for its rhino population, many other animals find a home in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi as well. The game reserve houses Africa's Big 5 as well as a diverse array of small predators, herbivores and birds. Throughout our self-guided game drive, we had many wonderful wildlife encounters, despite the thick foliage and tall grasses of the rainy season. 

Beautiful Bird in Tall Grass
Family of Warthogs Crossing the Road
Herd of Buffalo at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
               Our most prized animal sighting came toward the end of our drive, while Dan and I were finishing our loop of the park. We were meandering along one of the park's smaller roads when, all of a sudden, we encountered a line of cars stopped near a dry riverbed. 
                  Dan and I rolled down our windows and craned our necks to see what was going on, but found nothing except for grasses and shrubs. We asked the passengers in the stopped car in front of us, but the driver merely shrugged and pointed at the other cars, suggesting they knew something he did not. When the cars lined up in front finally continued on their way, we pulled up into their places and scanned our surroundings.
                 And then we saw the prize. Sitting under a tree in the distance was a pack of rare wild dogs, whose patchy brown and black fur camouflaged perfectly into the surrounding area. 
                    The dogs were far away and I had to sit on the car's window ledge to see them. I took out my camera and screwed on the 300mm zoom lens to try to capture an image of the animals. 


            Though the quality of the image is compromised due to the extended zoom and significant cropping, I am happy that we were able to at least capture memento of the wonderful sighting. Seeing the dogs was a wonderful belated Christmas gift that nearly made us forget our misadventures the previous day. It rounded out an incredible week of wildlife sightings and close encounters with the continent's most dangerous predators and was a great finale to our whirlwind three-week tour of Africa's southern tip. 
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Friday, July 11, 2014

Hlane Royal Wildlife Park

             Given that Dan and I planned our trip to Southern Africa during the rainy season when animal sightings are more difficult to come by, we didn't expect much from our visit to Swaziland's Hlane Royal Wildlife Park--a relatively obscure little conservation area located in Swaziland's northeastern corner. 
                But just because its small stature pales in comparison to that of the mightier Kruger to the North, doesn't mean that visiting Hlane is any less worthwhile. From the moment we entered the gates of the park--just minutes prior to the camp's closure for the night--Hlane set us up for one big adventure. 
                 Though Hlane and Kruger are not far apart, the two parks couldn't be any more different from one another. Kruger has always been a well-established and highly publicized romantic getaway for those wishing to catch a glimpse of Africa's majestic wildlife. The park houses a network of paved roads, eateries and accommodation options that cater to every traveler's needs. It is large enough to get lost in for days, spans a variety of different habitats and houses some of the highest concentrations of wild animals on the planet. 
                Hlane, on the other hand, sits off the tourist trail and only makes its way onto the itineraries of the intrepid travelers who are drawn to Africa's tiny kingdom by curiosity. Some would say Hlane sits off the beaten path, though such a description seems far from fitting. In fact, Hlane sits on a path so beaten (by weather and lack of infrastructure) and trodden (by animals), that attempting to drive around on our own in our rented Fiat 500 would have no doubt resulted in disaster.
               After taking one look at the roads--with their meter-deep wheel ruts and water-filled potholes--it became apparent that we would have to book a tour in a safari truck if we wanted to have any chance whatsoever of making inroads into the park's interior. 
               So, the next morning, Dan and I woke up at the crack of dawn in time for an early morning safari. First, however, we decided to stop by the campsite's water hole to catch a glimpse of animal activity. 
                  What we saw was incredible. 

Rhinos Sleeping in Hlane National Park
                   As the sun rose, the area around us began to take form and come to life. At the waterhole, we saw a cluster of brown lumps sitting around the water.  Twelve rhinos were sleeping in a clearing near the camp, merely a stone's throw from where we were standing. Unlike camps at some of the other wildlife refuges that I had visited, Hlane had very little protecting our tents from the wild animals. 

Waking Rhinos in Hlane
                  A small fence with two strands of wire was all that separated us from the massive mammals. We tried not to think of the fact that a thin metal wire stood very little chance of protecting us from a charging rhino.

              Due to widespread rhino poaching throughout southern Africa, the rangers at Hlane have attempted to maintain a close eye on the animals by enclosing them in an area away from predators and by monitoring them consistently in the relatively small area of park. 
              Hlane is divided into three sections--the rhino section, the lion section and the section housing only game. 
              Following our incredible luck with the rhinos, we decided to begin our safari-truck adventure with a foray into the lion area of the park. Our guide warned us right away that lion sightings in the park was not a guarantee--especially in the rainy season when the tall grasses would hinder us from being able to see at a distance. 
              Yet, thanks to our guide's keen ability to spot camouflaged animals, it was only minutes before we found ourselves zooming down the park's potholed roads in the direction of four tan bumps in the grass. 
              For the second time in the day, we couldn't believe our luck. Sitting in front of us--merely a few arms lengths away from our open-air vehicle--sat a black-maned lion with three lionesses. It was arguably the best animal sighting I had had during my year in Africa and certainly one of the most thrilling moments of our South African trip. 
              I felt totally and completely vulnerable and unprotected in the truck as we inched closer and closer for a better view. 
             
Sleeping Lioness

My Best Lion Sighting Yet
             It turns out that the elephants (not the lions or rhinos) were probably the animals we should have been concerned about all along, however. 
          Merely moments after we reached a safe distance from the lions, I heard the car engine sputtering. I could see a wave of panic wash over the face of our guide as we drove by a herd of African elephants. 
              The animals were majestic and beautiful. I took out my camera to snap a few photos of them, but I could see that the guide had no interest in absorbing the view or admiring the animals. 
                With good reason, I soon learned. Only a few days prior, a massive elephant had knocked over a safari truck. From the incident, our guide had developed a palpable fear of the world's largest mammals. As I sat snapping photos of the animals, our guide's sole concern seemed to be getting us out of the elephant area of the park before our car engine failed us completely. 

Elephants with Babies, Hlane
                  And we barely made it. The car engine sputtered one last time and died completely just seconds after we exited the gates of the park. It was a thrilling and exhilarating finish to yet another successful wildlife adventure.
               Though we had shed our expectations of seeing animals in the park, Hlane just kept delivering. With every bend in the road, a new and unforgettable sighting appeared before our eyes. It was the quintessential African wildlife experience--never dull, often uncomfortable, a bit terrifying and, as always, full of surprises.
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