data Bisbocci Abroad
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Goree Island, Senegal

             If you look at the two pictures below, you might think they were taken at a house in the French countryside. Or perhaps in a quaint Italian village, where centuries-old crumbling houses have colorful coats of paint, green shutters and cascades of flowers and vines tumbling out of the crevices in the walls. 
                You probably wouldn't think that these images were actually taken in Senegal, West Africa--a place often associated with disease, poverty and corruption. 
                But they were.

               Wander the sandy streets of tiny Goree Island, and you might begin to feel that you were stuck back in time--in a place with a distinct Afro-European vibe--where sandy streets meander through groves of baobabs, where fishermen set out on vibrantly colored boats to find their fresh catch of the day and where women walk the streets clothed in traditional batik fabrics. It's a beautiful display of East meets West. A picturesque place steeped in history that dispels many stereotypes associated with modern-day Africa. 
                I decided to visit Goree Island on the second day of my 48 hour layover in Senegal. Visiting the island was an easy day trip from central Dakar and one of the principal reasons for which I picked up the trip to West Africa this past July. 
               Since nobody else on my crew was particularly interested in taking a day trip to visit this famous trans-Atlantic gateway, I set off by myself on what I thought would be an hour-long tour of the island. 
                  It turns out that I spent nearly six hours roaming the picturesque streets, taking in the ocean views and watching local life unfold. 
Fishing Boats, Goree Island, Dakar

              While picturesque, however, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is known more for its dark past than for its display of flowers, beaches and pretty buildings.
                Goree Island is best known as being a prominent center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was the launching pad from which thousands of slaves were shipped off to the Americas and torn from their homelands. Thanks in part to President Obama's much-publicized visit in 2013, the island has become a renowned symbol of West Africa's horrifying past. 

                 Perhaps the most notable tourist attraction on Goree Island is the "House of Slaves"--a pink-washed museum and slave trade memorial that houses the infamous "Door of no Return."
               The actual relevance of the House of Slaves (and Goree Island as a whole) in the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been debated by historians for the past century. Today it has become a place many associate with African slavery, though some argue that the principal gateways were actually elsewhere in Senegal and that very few slaves likely departed Africa from Goree Island. Nevertheless, the House of Slaves and its Door of no Return have become symbols of the dark era in Africa's past and a place of remembrance for the millions who lost their lives on the perilous voyage across the seas. 
             Goree Island's place in Africa's history books may not have been as significant as many believe, but a visit to the island is powerful and sobering nonetheless. Today, the island draws a mix of local day-trippers from Dakar seeking a getaway from frenetic city life, African Americans visitors seeking to reconnect with their roots and a few curious tourists like me--tourists who decided to visit despite the mass hysteria over the ebola outbreak in neighboring West African countries. 
Goree Island, Senegal
House of Slaves, Goree Island
              I didn't listen to those who tried to dissuade me from visiting Senegal because of ebola-related fears and, instead, used my own judgement to decide whether I felt safe going to Dakar.          
          The media decides to show us a West Africa that is synonymous with malnourished children and dying parents. A West Africa ravaged by disease, starvation and poverty. And while the gravity of the outbreaks in nearby Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea should not be undermined one must, as always, understand that Africa is a vast continent and that the issues facing one country do not necessarily affect the others.
              It is yet another reminder that the Africa we think we know, is quite different from the diverse and multi-faceted continent that actually exists. 
               After all, if I had shown you the pictures of the orange houses at the beginning of this post and asked you to vote on where you thought they were taken, would have chosen West Africa? 
                My guess is probably not. 
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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fragmented Thoughts on Returning to Africa

                This past December, after living for a year tucked away in the northwest corner of one of the world's driest countries, I remember the feeling of standing at the very southernmost tip of the African continent and looking out at the ocean as it extended as far as my eyes could see in three directions. It filled me with a sense of awe to be at the very bottom of this giant land mass and watching as the waves of the Atlantic and Pacific collided at Cape Aghulas. I could look to the South, and see nothing but ocean for thousands of miles. 
                   But if I turned to the North, I saw the tiny lighthouse of the Cape Aghulas peninsula and, beyond that, it was not difficult to imagine the fertile plains of South Africa and the dry, cracking earth of the Kalahari. Beyond that, I could imagine the jungles of the Congo--the dense and twisting vines, the waterways and unpaved roads that lead deep into the "Heart of Darkness." And beyond, I could imagine the Sahel, an area of the world fraught with frequent droughts and bouts of hunger due to rapid desertification and unpredictable weather patterns. And finally, I imagined the Land of Sand. The great Sahara. Stretching over the entirety of North Africa, to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. 
               Standing at the tip of the continent, looking in, I could imagine Africa in all it's diversity. 

            In the year I spent living in Namibia, I was fortunate to witness much of the diversity that Africa has to offer. Throughout the year, I lived and traveled around eight different countries in Southern Africa. Each country afforded me opportunities to visit breathtaking natural wonders, live amongst vibrant cultures and witness the incredible species of wildlife that find a home on the continent. 
                  Africa became a beautiful memory that I revisit daily. 
                I think daily about the year I spent in Namibia--about my journey as an English and ICT teacher in Onansi village, about my little friend Embara who came over in the evenings to help me paint a giant world map mural on the school grounds and about the weekends I spent with fellow volunteers.
                  I often think about trudging through the sand tracks past my house to the nearby grocery store, about nightly treks to the computer lab to access precious internet and about sitting on my doorstep outside, watching the fiery sunsets drench the vast African skies
                  Though my life has changed drastically since being a volunteer in this remote corner of the African bush, I often find myself homesick for Namibia. I found a sense of purpose when teaching my students and feel now that, as I flitter around the world serving peanuts and cocktails I have, in many ways, lost it. 
                  It's not that I find the job I am doing now to be meaningless or that I am unhappy with my new lifestyle. I am happy. It is just that I sometimes have to work a bit harder now to regain that sense of purpose that I lost when I moved stateside. 

              I reunited recently with Africa on a layover this past July, when I picked up a trip to Dakar, Senegal. Though thousands of miles from my former home in Namibia, setting foot on African soil once more was a wonderful feeling. 
              On my layover in Senegal,  I decided to visit La Pouponniere--an orphanage in the heart of Dakar that seeks to care for some of the city's most vulnerable babies. I visited the orphanage partly because I missed the contact with children that I had as part of my daily life in Namibia and partly because I felt it might help fill the void of purpose I experienced since beginning my new life in the skies. 
             La Pouponniere is a wonderful orphanage run by Franciscan nuns. Upon entering the complex, I was immediately impressed by the amount of care and dedication that the nuns and team of volunteers give to the children. There were play rooms filled with stuffed animals and toys, refrigerators full of baby formula and a network of people that work tirelessly around the clock to keep the babies well-rested, well-fed and well-entertained. 
                   La Pouponniere is not merely for orphans. It also takes in babies who have been abandoned by their parents and babies living in extreme poverty who suffer from malnourishment. Some of them have families at home, yet came to the orphanage initially because they were malnourished and in need of special care. La Pouponniere nurses the children back to health and keeps them well fed during their most fragile years, before returning them to their families. 

                    Though Senegal is often regarded as a beacon of stability in West Africa, this majority Muslim country at the continent's western tip is plagued by many of the issues facing the other reaches of the continent. High rates of child mortality, disease, lack of jobs and large gaps between the rich and the poor have stagnated the growth of Senegal's economy and left many people flocking to the cities from the countryside in search of employment opportunities. 
                  As with most other countries in the region, corruption and mismanagement of funds has  contributed greatly to Senegal's inequality. For example, in 2010, Dakar saw the completion of Africa's tallest statue, which has drawn controversy both from within the country and from abroad. The construction of the African Renaissance Monument cost 27 million dollars and was built in order to boost the country's hopes for tourism.

African Renaissance Monument
                  In light of the current economic climate in the country, most people justifiably felt that the money was terribly mismanaged and could have been better invested in education programs and health services.
           The monument rises above much of the cityscape and was visible from the moment we stepped off the plane. In a city with few landmarks or things to see, the iconic statue certainly makes a bold statement--regardless of whether you agree or not with its construction. 
                  Aside from the monument, Dakar does not have many must-see attractions. Like many other African capitals, the city's charm is found in the constant buzz of activity, in the vibrantly colored textiles and in the call to prayer blaring from the minarets around the city.

Mosque overlooking the Atlantic
                  On the evening of my first night in Dakar, I went with a pilot and two fellow flight attendants to Les Almadies, a neighborhood bordering the ocean that is famous for its fresh seafood. We ate at a small restaurant on the water frequented exclusively by locals and had a wonderful time chatting and feasting on the delicious plates of clams and calamari.
                 Amidst the conversation, however, I left the table for a few minutes and went to sit alone on the rocks overlooking the ocean. At this rocky outcrop behind the seafood restaurant, I found myself once again sitting at the very tip of continental Africa and a bizarre sense of deja vu washed over me as I listened to waves pounding against the rocks.
Beach near the Restaurant in Les Almadies
Group of Children Standing at the Westernmost Tip of Africa
                 When I visited the southernmost tip of the continent last December, I never imagined that it would be merely seven months before I would find myself once again standing at one of the corners of Africa looking inward--picturing once again the vast diversity and beauty of a continent that strikes fear into the hearts of those who have never stepped on her soil.   
                  But here I was. Standing at the western edge of Senegal and looking in once again at the continent that had been my home just months before. 
                 It was a feeling at once foreign yet familiar, vivid yet surreal, overwhelming yet peaceful. A feeling I am not likely to forget.  
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Friday, October 10, 2014

Iceland's Blue Lagoon

              Overpriced, overcrowded and overrun with tourists. Iceland's Blue Lagoon is all these things. 
                  But it is also tranquil, therapeutic and overwhelmingly beautiful. 
               I visited the Blue Lagoon on my twenty-four hour Reykjavik layover after spending the morning meandering along the colorful streets of Iceland's capital. Since I knew I was going to forego sleeping for a few hours upon my arrival, I figured pairing my fast-paced morning with a relaxing evening would be the perfect way to maximize my layover, while minimizing the exhaustion I often feel when deciding to skip my routine morning nap. 
                  At 3pm, after a quick lunch of lobster cream soup, my crew and I took a forty minute bus ride to the Blue Lagoon. The bus ride out to the lagoon was hauntingly beautiful in itself. The surrounding colors were stark and foreboding--perhaps largely due to the grey skies overhead. 
                  What struck me most about the landscape is that it seemed both lifeless and flourishing all at once. The terrain was so desolate that we failed to spot a single tree outside the Reykjavik city limits, yet the blackened earth was speckled with vibrant green mosses and lichen that gave life to the surrounding area. 

Rivers of Milky Water Runoff          
              Though often touted as one of Iceland's premier natural wonders, the lagoon is, in fact, partially manmade--a byproduct of the nearby Svartsengi power plant. The power plant takes the heated water from the ground and uses it to run turbines in order to generate electricity. The water is then pumped back out into the lava fields and forms a pool. This water runoff from the power plant has now become a magnet for tourists seeking to take advantage of the lagoon's therapeutic and healing properties. 
        The mineral-rich lagoon has been known to cure skin diseases like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Thus, many people seeking skin treatment flock to the Blue Lagoon in hopes that the waters' healing properties will offer relief to their skin ailments. 
               Yet, the vast majority of people visiting the lagoon were tourists like me--tourists seeking a day of pampering and relaxation at one of the world's great semi-natural outdoor spas.
              As we neared the lagoon, we could see clouds of steam rising from the geothermal power plant. They tumbled out of the ground and drowned the surrounding landscape in a translucent curtain of grey. 
            Branching out of the center of the complex, we could see the powdery blue water runoff creating rivers through the lava beds.  I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the color of the water. I had previously seen pictures of the lagoon, but had always imagined them to be enhanced in some way. Yet, the colors were real. What I saw with my eyes were the very same milky blue shades that showed up on Google images. 
               The milky aquamarine color is the result of the white silica and blue-green algae that cover the lagoon's floor. 

Blue Lagoon Spa
Blue Lagoon Spa and Power Plant
               Bahji and I spent nearly four hours lounging in the water, covering our faces with silica mud masks and darting between the lagoon's various saunas and steam rooms.
             It was the ultimate spa day, made a thousand times better by the jaw-dropping natural setting and striking array of colors.
            Yes, the Blue Lagoon may be overpriced, overcrowded and overfilled with tourists but, as our bus pulled away from the parking lot and headed back toward Reykjavik, I couldn't help feeling that the price tag for this tourist magnet was totally justified. 
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The World's Most Northerly Capital

              When I finish working an international flight, I am normally so exhausted by the time I reach my layover hotel, that I take a nap for a few hours before going out to explore the city.
            In some destinations though--especially in places I have never visited before--I disregard my regular routine and opt to leave the hotel right away in order to maximize my time. Despite sometimes not having slept in an entire twenty four hours and being so exhausted I can barely stand, I try my best to garner a second wind and take advantage of the few precious hours I have overseas. 
              But the reality is that twenty-four hours is not enough time to visit a place. It really isn't. No matter how much you try to stretch each hour out to make it last. 
                That is the downside to working for the airlines and only getting short stints of time to visit a place on a layover. Sometimes the visits are so short that they have me itching to go back before I even step foot off the plane. 

              This proved to be especially true when I visited Reykjavik this past July.
              I did not take a nap when I arrived in Iceland and, instead, set off right away to explore the city with one of my housemates, Bahji, who had decided to tag along for the ride. Though exhausted, when I checked into the hotel I quickly changed out of my uniform, threw on a few sweaters to fend off the biting Icelandic wind and put on my walking shoes.
            Bahji and I meandered around the city's pleasant streets, walked around the perfectly manicured parks and admired the simple yet attractive nordic architecture surrounding us.
             The crisp Icelandic air kept my blood flowing and stopped my tiredness from getting the better of me.
             Compared to most European capitals, I found that Reykjavik has fairly few must-see attractions. But that doesn't mean that the world's most northerly capital is devoid of places to visit. Instead of gawking over the ornate facades of buildings or admiring the intricate interiors of the city's churches, I enjoyed the pleasant streets and the progressive atmosphere. I found myself admiring the way the colorful houses lined up so nicely along the streets, as though they fit together seamlessly as part of a puzzle.

Reykjavik from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja
                Yet, while the beauty of Reykjavik lies in its overall vibe than in its particular landmarks, one attraction certainly stands out above the rest (both literally and figuratively). The Hallgrimskirkja--a 73 meter church that towers over the rest of the city--is certainly a sight to behold. Dwarfing all that surrounds it, the church is to Reykjavik what the Sagrada Familia is to Barcelona.
                  The Hallgrimskirkja was designed by architect Guojon Samuelsson and construction was completed in the 1980s. Architecturally, it is fascinating.  It's peculiar flowy design is meant to represent the lava that is found throughout Iceland's volcanic landscape though, to me, it seemed more like a massive pipe organ rising from the surrounding neighborhood. 
Statue of Leif Erikson         
            After a few hours of exploring the city's streets, climbing to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja bell-tower and popping into a few overpriced eateries throughout the morning, Bahji and I went back to the hotel to collect our swimsuits in preparation for part two of our whirlwind agenda.                     
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Friday, September 12, 2014

A Day on Italy's Lake Como

               In the airline industry, seniority is everything. It dictates the trips you fly, the days you have off, the amount you get paid and the vacation weeks you hold. Seniority decides where you can be based, the flexibility of your schedule and the likelihood of getting on a flight when flying standby. 
              As new hires, seniority is often our biggest hurdle and, because of it, we are often relegated to flying the least desirable routes, with the shortest layovers and the earliest sign-ins.
              We mostly fly the trips that other more senior flight attendants don't want, and spend our layovers in places like Akron, Ohio or Little Rock, Arkansas. It doesn't take long for us to realize that it will be years before we can regularly hold trips to places like Paris or Bangkok. 
           And while many of us newcomers find tricks and tips to better our schedules, there are few ways to negate seniority and hold the types of trips we often dreamed of when we applied for the job.
             I soon realized that if I wanted to have any luck at being able to go overseas regularly for work, I would have to become an LOD. An LOD is someone who takes part in the airline’s language of destination program. Since flights to certain countries require translators who speak the local language, working as an LOD is often the key for more junior flight attendants to work the coveted transoceanic routes. 
         When I joined the airlines, many people initially tried to convince me to forego the language test, stating that the qualification would relegate me to flying the transoceanic flights to Italy and limit my ability to hold routes to other destinations. And perhaps this is true. Perhaps flying routes to Italy has limited my ability to fly elsewhere. 
           But, when I think that that my alternative could be flying four flights a day with a short layover in Minot, North Dakota, flying to Italy suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. 
           This past summer, my regular route was to fly between New York and Rome or Milan. Though I have been to these cities many times in my life, I have used my layovers to become even more familiar with them and have used them as a springboard for visiting the surrounding towns and villages. On Milan trips, in particular, I have used my layovers as an opportunity to spend time around Lake Como and immerse myself in some of Italy’s most beautiful mountain scenery.

                Lake Como is a Y-shaped body of water that snakes through the craggy mountains of Northern Italy. While it is often known as a famed retreat for the wealthy (including George Clooney and Madonna), it has also become a common tourist destination for visitors from around the world. 
               Much like the popular beach-side towns of the Cinque Terre and Amalfi Coast, visitors to Lake Como enjoy wandering around the lake’s picturesque villages and taking in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. 
                On my first trip to the Lake, I traveled with my crew to the colorful town of Varenna. We spent the day meandering along the town’s cobblestone streets, sipping wine at one of the many outdoor cafes and taking in the lakefront views. 

Varenna, Italy
              After exploring Varenna for a bit, my crew and I decided to take a short boat ride to Bellagio--another well-renouned gem along Como's lakeshore. 
            The short ferry ride afforded us spectacular views of the surrounding towns from various angles. 

View of Bellagio from the Boat
            We walking around the narrow streets of Bellagio and admired the town's ornate villas and hotels, before returning to Varenna for a bite to eat. Though my meals while on layovers in Italy usually consist of a cone of gelato and a piece of pizza on the fly, it seemed almost sacrilegious to leave Varenna without at least sitting down and absorbing the view for a bit. 
           So we sat and we ate and we talked, hoping to prolong our visit to the lake as best we could and trying to forget that we had a return train back to Milan. 
            But reality got the better of us so, after a wonderful dinner, we traveled back to our hotel in order to catch up on enough sleep for our long return journey home the following morning. 

Mountains around Lake Como
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