data Bisbocci Abroad
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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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Friday, December 19, 2014

Bocas del Toro, Panama

               After a busy first day in Panama City, Dan and I left the capital and headed North for a few days of sun and sand. We were headed to Bocas del Toro--a popular backpackers haunt well known for its laid-back vibe, its turquoise waters and its pretty white-sand beaches lining mangrove-covered islands. 
           Bocas del Toro is one of Panama's premier tourist attractions and undoubtedly the country's backpacking mecca. It offers everything travelers might want in terms of accommodation, food, entertainment and sightseeing. Little shops line the streets of Bocas Town, touting tourists excursions ranging from snorkeling to zip lining and from boating to wildlife viewing. 

                Most boat excursions had already left the docks by the time Dan and I arrived in town on our overnight bus from Panama City. So, instead of tacking on to an organized tour, we decided to take a local bus to Starfish Beach on the other side of the island. Starfish Beach is known for its long strip of sand and the bright orange starfish that dot its turquoise waters. 
            Our visit coincided with a yearly boatracing festival that brought hundreds of Panamanians to the islands. Due to the influx of weekend party-goers in Bocas, it took Dan and I a while to find a patch of beach away from the hoards of people. The beach was crowded with young couples lounging in the sand. Music blared from boom boxes on the shore and families splashed around in the waters. 

               Our second day in Bocas del Toro was the highlight of our venture into Panama's North. We tagged onto a boat trip that offered the possibility of snorkeling, dolphin spotting, beach lounging and perhaps even sloth viewing. 
                   Our boat trip started in Dolphin Bay, where we saw numerous pods of bottle-nose dolphins darting around. The bay has a semi-permanent population of dolphins that are drawn to its waters due to an abundance of small fish and squid. We watched the playful dolphins for about twenty minutes, before continuing on to Crawl Cay for lunch and a swim among colorful fish and coral. 

                  Much of the coral around Crawl Cay was dying, perhaps largely due to an influx of tourists keen on touching the undersea environment or breaking pieces off as souvenirs. Nonetheless, we enjoyed following schools of colorful fish and getting a closeup view of the coral that had survived contact with the curious feet and hands of travelers. 

Our Lunch Spot at Crawl Cay
                      After eating lunch, snorkeling and sleeping for a bit on the hammocks at Crawl Cay, we got back in the boat for the crown jewel of our excursion--a trip to Cayo Zapatilla. 
                      The Cayos Zapatillas are twin islands that are often referred to as the pearls of Bocas Bay. We went to the greater of the two islands for a few hours of beach time and relished the tranquility of our picture-perfect surroundings. Gone were the hoards of tourists with their boom boxes and beers. Gone were the boats dropping people off and picking them up. It was just us and the sand and the sea and the beautiful blue sky.  
                      Cayo Zapatilla is where Panama's Survivor series was filmed. To us, the island felt wild and untouched, yet its waters were welcoming and warm. Visiting Cayo Zapatilla was the first time--among many in Panama--that Dan and I would feel as though we were stranded in paradise. 

Beautiful Beach at Cayo Zapatillo
                     Before leaving on an overnight bus back to Panama City the following day, Dan and I managed to first swim at an expansive stretch of sand called Red Frog Beach. The beach is named after the tiny poison dart frogs that inhabit the jungles of the island's interior. Yet, like the sloths in Soberenia, Dan and I had failed to spot any of the little red frogs. 

Red Frog Beach, Bocas
                   It was a bit reluctantly that Dan and I packed our bags, left our lovely hostel in Bocas Town and headed South for part two of our Panamanian vacation. 
                   But it was best that we left when we did. Because we left Bocas in the nick of time--just as the clouds started to thicken and cast the skies in an ominous shield of grey. And as the boat taking us back to the mainland pulled away from the dock, the rain started to drizzle. Then it began to pour. 
                     We counted ourselves lucky for the three beautiful days of sunshine we experienced, crossing our fingers that the rain was just a fluke and that the luck we had experienced in Bocas would continue throughout the rest of our stay. 
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Monday, December 8, 2014

Jungles, Skyscrapers and the Panama Canal

               "Oh wow! Have fun in Florida" everyone would say after I told them I had plans to go to Panama for ten days. "I hear the beach is really nice there." 
               And when I told them no, that I'd be going to the country called Panama rather than the Floridian beach resort, they would often nod their heads in understanding. "Oh yes" they would say. "The Panama Canal."
            The Panama Canal. It's Panama's claim to fame and the one thing most people can tell you about the thin, squiggly country that Dan and I set out to discover in September. 

                   We woke up early on our first morning in the country and navigated the twisting maze of traffic lanes, looping around in circles until we finally found a road leading outside the city. We were looking for a morning escape into the Soberenia Rainforest, where we hoped  to take respite from the  congestion of the capital and perhaps encounter monkeys, birds and maybe a sloth or two. 

                 But when we arrived at Soberenia, the rain started to fall and sent Dan and I running for cover under the canopies. 
                     We darted below branches and leaves, continuing down the famous Pipeline Road in search of birds and other jungle creatures. But we encountered very little wildlife. Every once in a while, a capybara scuttled across the path in front of us. We saw some spiders and ants and plenty of butterflies--including one that was a deep scintillating blue and appeared to be at least twice the size of my hand. 
                   But we did not see any birds. Nor did we see any monkeys or sloths. We didn't end up seeing any of the animals that the park is famed for, though the deafening cacophony of sound made us aware that howler monkeys were probably lurking right in front of our untrained eyes. It was apparent that our lack of luck was likely due in part to the heavy rains and also to the fact that we had chosen to walk into the forest without a professional guide. 
             Still, the dense foliage and vibrant greens of the rainforest created a magical and otherworldly environment. 

              From the Soberenia Rainforest, Dan and I headed back into town. The rains had started to pelt down with such ferocity that we began to think we might have to spend the rest of the day indoors. Reluctantly, we found refuge in a shopping mall and stayed inside until the rains subsided. We were lucky when the downpour let up long enough for us to continue our first day in Panama with a visit to the country's premier tourist attraction and engineering marvel.

                 The Panama Canal is one of the world's greatest feats of engineering and a key conduit for  maritime trade. Construction of the canal, which opened in 1914, initially began in the 1800s by French workers who sought to join the world's two greatest oceans. Yet, soon, engineering hurdles and outbreaks of malaria caused the French to halt their construction and abandon the project. 
                  In 1904, the United States decided to finish the construction of the canal. Despite continued threats brought on by outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever, thousands of workers put their lives at risk in order to finish the job.

                     When the US, led by president Jimmy Carter, decided to give the canal back to Panama in 1977, Panama entered into a new era of prosperity and the influx of money into Panama as a result of the canal cannot be underestimated. It generates billions of dollars that are, in turn, poured into the country to finance infrastructure. Today, in large part due to the canal, Panamanians enjoy a higher standard of living than most other Central Americans.
                 And the economic benefits of the canal are likely to become even more significant in upcoming years. Currently, the canal is undergoing a $5.3 billion expansion that will have a dramatic influence on the canal's daily capacity while, in turn, generating even more dollars.


                   Visiting the Miraflores Visitor Center is a perfect way to learn more about the country's premier tourist attraction. Through videos, visuals and exhibits, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the canal's unique engineering and construction. 
                    Along the length of the canal, a series of locks lift ships 85 meters from sea level to the height of Gatun Lake. Ships are then able to float across the Continental Divide, before being lowered once again back to sea level.
                 The highlight of the visitors center is an observation deck, where tourists are able to watch the locks at work. Dan and I watched the rise and fall of the waters for a long time. It was hypnotizing and mind-blowing. We saw ships as they passed through the channel, led by little motorized cars that would steer them through the narrow waterway. 

               From the observation deck, I looked out in the opposite direction of the canal and saw high-rises towering above the surrounding jungle. These buildings were likely financed in part by the very engineering feat that lay before me. Thinking about the tranquil rainforest I had just visited earlier in the day, I could not help but wonder how different Panama would be, had it not been for the construction of the canal.
               The waterfront high rises were so different from what I imagined Panama City to look like. These skyscrapers rising from dense jungles along the water's edge seemed to be an anomaly in Central America. Something, instead, akin to Miami Beach.
               I laughed, thinking about those who had wished me a happy vacation in Florida.

              Perhaps Panama City, Panama and it's namesake in Florida are not so different after all. 
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Friday, November 28, 2014

Pretty Towns in Tuscany and the Marche

                 Flexibility is one of the best perks of working for the airlines. As a flight attendant, I can swap trips, drop them if there are others willing to pick them up and move dates around with relative ease. This past August, not only did I manage to finagle twelve days off in a row, but I also was able to swap last minute onto a flight to Pisa--one of the most senior trips in the system.     
                    My twenty four hours in Pisa were wonderful and, despite the short duration of my visit, I had the opportunity to see my parents who were vacationing in Italy for the summer. When they learned that I had swapped onto a Pisa trip, they decided to drive the two and a half hours from the Marche region into Tuscany so that we could spend the day together. 
                   After I arrived, I took my habitual morning power nap. Then, my parents and I set off to explore the beautiful Tuscan town of Lucca. Lucca is known for it's unique oval square and for its pleasant promenade along the old city's Medieval walls. The city has become a popular tourist destination for people seeking a day trip from Pisa or Florence. 

Lucca's Oval Square
City Walls of Lucca
Lucca from Above
              Lucca is only about twenty minutes away from Pisa, so in the late afternoon, my parents and I still had time to drive back to Pisa and pay a visit to the city's infamous leaning tower.
              The city's Piazza del Duomo is home to not only the tower, but also to a baptistry, a cathedral and a cemetery. The buildings are all separate, but they are bound together by the uniform architecture of their intricately carved facades. The tilted belltower, which sunk into the ground on one side shortly after its construction, resembles a beautiful (yet lopsided) multilayered wedding cake. Today, the entire church complex has garnered a place on Unesco's World Heritage list.

Piazza del Duomo
                While the leaning tower is impressive, Pisa offers more to see than this iconic symbol. Away from the Piazza del Duomo complex, my parents and I found another of the city's gems--a little gothic church with intricate spires that was disassembled and rebuilt on the banks of the Arno River. Today, the little church sits sandwiched between a busy street and the river. Its name, Santa Maria della Spina, was derived because the church was once said to have housed a thorn from Jesus' crown.
                  Despite its alleged historical relevance, the area around the church was deserted when we visited. We did not see the hoards of camera-toting tourists that we had seen around the leaning tower. The little church's seeming abandonment added even more to its unusual charm. 
Santa Maria della Spina
                         I arrived back in New York from Pisa in the early afternoon and spent a grand total of about four hours in the JFK airport before I hopped back on a plane across the Atlantic to begin my vacation. Those I told about my quick turnaround thought I was joking. But I wasn't. I did not want to waste one of my days off by sitting at home in my crash pad. The only issue I had, was deciding where I would go. 
                       When I leafed through the pages of the magazine in the seatback pocket of the airplane, I found a world map indicating the routes served by my airline. I had ten days off and wanted to go somewhere new and exciting. Somewhere in Central America, or perhaps Asia. 
                       Lines representing the routes stretched across the Atlantic and Pacific, extended to South America and touched all six of the world's habited continents. My opportunities were endless and, in the days leading up to my short holiday, I spent hours scheming and dreaming about where I would go, reading travel blogs about faraway places and wondering where my first solo backpacking adventure would take me. 
                       Yet, despite the extensive list of destinations I could choose from, I made a decision that, in the end, surprised even myself. 
                       Other places could wait, I thought, as I traced the line from JFK to Rome. A trip to Italy was long overdue. I would have months ahead of me to visit the places I'd been dreaming of since I began flying. 
                 Sure, I'd been going to Italy nearly every week throughout the summer. At work, I would fly to Rome or Milan, spend a day in the city and then fly back. Yet, it had been two years since I visited--really visited--Italy.   

                   On my ten day vacation visiting family in Italy, I took the opportunity to visit some of the lesser-konwn attractions in my family's backyard. Tuscany is beautiful, and the world knows it. But the Marche are just as beautiful and, in comparison, relatively undiscovered. My family lives in Fabriano, a small town nestled in the Apennines. I've spent many summers of my life in Fabriano and rarely ventured to the other towns and villages in the region. Yet, this time, my aunt, uncle, cousin and dad hopped in a car to explore the picturesque villages that most people from outside Italy (or the Marche region, for that matter) would know nothing about. 
                    Our first stop was Pioraco, where we wandered the narrow streets and climbed one of the surrounding hills for an aerial view of the city.

Pioraco, Italy from Above
           From Pioraco, we ventured deeper into the Monti Sibillini National Park to Visso--an enchanting Medieval town encircled by the surrounding mountains. 

Visso, Italy
              I went to Italy expecting to revisit my old stomping grounds. And I did. I also discovered a handful of other places that I had no idea existed just a few days prior.
              It is sometimes difficult for me to forego a new destination for a place that I have already seen. But I have come to learn that just because I have been to a place, doesn't mean there are not new nooks for me to explore or new crannies to discover.
               Especially in Italy.
               In Italy, one never runs out of things to see.
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