data Bisbocci Abroad
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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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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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