Taking back Travel

I had seen photos of Buenos Aires’ El Ateneo Grand Splendid online: friezes lining balconies with dozens of opera lights sparkling onto the books below. Friends who’d seen it commented that it was something to check off your list, an experience made underwhelming by glittering Instagram posts. I decided to go to the theater-turned-bookstore anyway. After snaking my way through its tables and stacks, I sat and watched the people inside.

El Ateneo seemed like a thing to do, rather than a place to be. Tourists rung the mezzanine and upper floors, peering over the brass guardrails at the shelves below. Google said that “people typically spend up to one hour here”, but I suspected the truth was much less. Those lining the two balconies gazed down, then posed for pictures or took photos to post directly online. 

On the ground floor, men and women picked up books, thumbing through pages like a flipbook, then set them down to move on. Occasionally, someone read the back cover or turned to a random page. Mostly, people circled the store, then exited, pausing here and there to look up at the ceiling’s fading fresco. 

Sitting on the theater’s stage/café, sipping overpriced iced coffee and mulling the scene before me, I couldn’t help wondering, “how many of our travels are like that?”. I’ve often heard friends and frequent travelers say, “have you done the Eiffel Tower?” Last time I checked, you can’t do the Eiffel Tower (god forbid). You can see it, touch it, and – perhaps, listen, smell, or taste it. The word vacation originally meant “to be unoccupied” in Latin. How often are we unoccupied when we escape our daily routines?

It is time we take back travel. While strolling the parks of Europe, stop and smell several roses. Savor the sugar and bitterness of a sweetened coffee. Listen even to sounds of traffic and feet shuffling. Touch the ocean’s edge with your toes. And look around you with eyes open wider than before. It’s hard to simply be in this world. But if we take back travel, we just might give ourselves the space to live more beautifully.

The Circle of Life

The Great Rift Valley, Masai Mara, Kakamega, and Lake Victoria – all these names spurred images of gambling giraffes, crocodiles in wait as thousands of wildebeest poured down a bank, and elephants trudging across grasslands marked by red dirt and green acacia. Despite, and perhaps because of these brochure-ready pictures, I bought my ticket to Kenya, ready for a proper adventure.


A lost giraffe trying to cross the busy road from Masai Mara to Narok

When I was little, I remember receiving stock cards in the mail, each card with a picture of a different animal and accompanying facts about their habitat, diet, and behavior. I collected them like baseball cards, studying them and doubtlessly annoying my parents with useless factoids (did you know a group of cheetahs is called a coalition?). A few years later, I went to a summer camp at the zoo where I held Capuchin monkeys and pet snakes. When Steve Irwin died, it was the hardest loss I had encountered up to that point. Coming to Kenya was, in a way, a homecoming.

The day after I arrived I hopped on a bus to the Masai Mara, where southern Kenya and Tanzania’s Serengeti meet, and fertile land provides habitats for ostriches, warthogs, and many more. As we hugged a tight curve, the Great Rift Valley opened, spreading down and across, miles of grass and thorny trees jutting up to a high plateau that stretches across Kenya, from Lebanon to Mozambique. We reached the Mara later that day. The sun fused my pants to my legs despite my best attempts to siphon the air rushing through the open window.

I was hoping I’d arrived in time for an afternoon game drive. Geoffrey, my guide in Masai red, acted as driver and local encyclopedia, teaching me Swahili and Masai words, and answering every one of the countless questions I threw his way.


The Masia and their colorful blankets

Upon entering the Mara, we bumped and lurched our way to a flowering tree brimming with life and death. I watched as an impala carcass fell at least four feet landing on a lower branch of the tree. A leopard panted as she gazed down, not quite ready to drag her meal back out of reach. Before the other vehicles arrived, it was just Nzuri the leopard, Geoffrey, and I, plus the dead impala.

Soon the clouds became grey and the wind quickened. I lay the neon green Masai blanket across my lap as the pressure dropped and rain began to fall. The animals took cover as well, hiding under trees and thorny bushes But, at a certain point, the trees became saturated. The rain dripped onto a cheetah’s feline head, trickling down before he quickly blinked it away. His four brothers sat and waited, and when the sun’s rays edged beyond the clouds, the Fast Five stood up to gaze in every direction, one thing on their mind.


The Fast Five, the largest coalition of cheetahs in the world

Moving toward the herd of impala and antelope beyond, the cheetahs sauntered past, reminding me of models on a catwalk. They passed within feet of the car, almost close enough to touch. Though they looked fluffy, I decided not to test it.

Upon arriving back at the camp, I was convinced that I’d seen enough to fill an episode of Planet Earth, David Attenborough’s voice narrating my thoughts as I drifted to sleep.

The next day I joined a friend and his classmates as we set off at sunrise, once more into the Mara. After only minutes of driving, we stopped. A full-grown black rhinoceros was browsing – a term used to describe the eating of leaves rather than grass. His ears twitted back and forth to ward off flies, reminding me of the funny protrusions sprouting from Shrek’s greener head.

We spent the whole day outside in the grassland our guide explaining everything from how lions mate (quickly and often) to the territorial nature of male hippos (they will attack and kill baby hippos). I lay resting after lunch staring up at the outreached arms of a giant fig tree. She offered me shade and ease; I left her cookie crumbs and gratitude.


Lion and Acacia

A few days later, after a joyously uneventful trip west to Kisumu, I went on a hike in the Kakamega Rainforest, the eastern-most reach of the Guineo-Congolian rainforest which begins at West Africa’s Atlantic coast. I met Abraham who took me through Kakamega, pointing out myriad plants and trees, rattling off the medicinal qualities of each, and how to use them. We saw rare birds that exist only there, and memorably, a fight between two groups of red-tailed monkeys. Their screeching was loud enough to be heard far into the dense thickets of ferns, bushes, and trees.

We walked twelve and a half miles up hills with panoramic vistas, through caves with bats covered in soft fuzz, and past fig trees 650 years old. The immensity of it all struck me as I bounced back to Kisumu on a motorbike later that day. In one comparably small corner of the world, I saw all the animals you long to see on safari. I saw the black marble eyes of a hippopotamus peeping above the waterline, ready to attack. I smelled the heady aroma of a rainforest, that life-giving decay filling me with ease. I heard a pair of lions roaring post-coitus and the thudding hooves of a moving herd. I felt the breeze and the rain, the sun and my sweat, nature at her sweetest and trickiest. I’d like to say I walked away from the trip wiser, with renewed purpose. But, as the motorbike jumped over potholes and zoomed past running children, I didn’t philosophize. I was too awestruck.

Wander, Seek, & Find


Double Rainbow on Christmas Eve

Every morning the last few weeks, I’ve eaten cornflakes for breakfast. And suddenly the world seems less troublesome…

People often travel to find themselves, though why or how they lose themselves remained a mystery to me until recently. Instead I imagine bodiless souls ordained by some holy ascetic to wander the countryside, Will-o’-the-wisps gliding down a path in order to recommune with their weak, dependent bodies.

And it’s hard to argue with that logic; check any Instagram travel account and you’ll doubtless find a quote about how travel is the only thing you shell out dough for that will make you richer, or how travel changes you, broadening your mind and transforming you into Wander Woman, complete with money belt rather than Lasso of Truth. Then why are so many of us so incredibly lost while everyone else seems to find their way?


My Jamaican Home

I have thought, read, and written about the concept of home and travel so much, you would think I have all these answers. Yet even after shirking work to travel for a year, I have no more answers than a three-year-old eating his own boogers.

So how did I lose myself when Peace Corps is supposed to be all about finding yourself? How did I become so mired in purposelessness, apathy, and despair when there are people whom I can help literally at my doorstep?

While pondering these puzzles, I realized a couple of things:

  1. People like to learn more about themselves, and then share that with the world. Case in point- While reading Eat, Pray, Love, I came across a section where a medicine man, Ketut, describes children born on Thursdays.

The official tree of children born on Thursday is the banyan. The official bird is the peacock. A person born on Thursday is always talking first, interrupting everyone else, can be a little aggressive, tends to be handsome (“a playboy or playgirl,” in Ketut’s words”) but has a decent overall character, with an excellent memory and a desire to help other people.

The point is, I was born on a Thursday.* And this quote is basically my Tinder bio. Which brings me to Point

  1. There’s nothing like a lived experience to teach you about yourself, and you cannot avoid them while traveling. After cussing out a taxi driver in Cambodia for not opening his trunk so I could get my backpack, I realized where my patience ends. After ten days of Burmese food, I learned it does nor pair well with extra cheesy pizza and margaritas.

Like Shrek said, life is like an onion, a layered, stinky, brings-tears-to-the-eyes affair that, when cooked correctly, is quite satisfying. And traveling is the most visceral, immediate way of learning about the life and self you’ve become.


Moss Filtered Light on the Hike Up Blue Mountain Peak

In short, we find ourselves everywhere we go, between the pages of our favorite book, in the scent of a blossoming flower, or in the touch of a lover. There is no life experience that doesn’t imprint on us in some way, whether or not we acknowledge it. And perhaps this is why the kookier of us careen down life searching, grabbing at every passing token that offers us an explanation of life’s greatest mystery: ourselves. Travel is just the medium I choose to unlock these mysteries, a slow ex-pat odyssey as full of questions as answers, and often not the ones you were seeking.

So maybe it doesn’t matter why I felt so purposeless, in need of finding me. Perhaps what matters more is that I know how to find me, to read in another’s pages feelings I heard as my own, to drift from whence I came in order to come back fuller, wiser, to  tell cheese puns no one wants to hear.**

Returning home from weeks on the road, I saw a box of cornflakes on the table. They were the same brand I had purchased during my trip and I smiled as I recognized the label, the same my host mom always buys. I might travel endeavoring to find myself, but when I crossed the threshold, that box reminded me I had been there the whole time. Sometimes it just takes a trip to notice a box of cornflakes.


Cornflakes ton UP

*My favorite tree is the banyan tree. I don’t have a favorite bird, but it might as well be the peacock, because that is, in essence, what I am: a loud, gregarious, bawdy young woman that likes to dress in finest feathers, but wants to help people too. As for the playgirl, you’ll have to ask my boyfriends…

**Did you hear about the cheese factory explosion in France? There was deBrie everywhere 😀

Love Without Borders

A single moment can explode your consciousness, forcing you to rethink your every move, word, and intention. Travelling amplifies these explosions. Strolling the beach in Australia, you realize a fifty year marriage should be celebrated, not scorned. A ten year friendship that started with all-nighters and strawberry wine grows stronger at a reggae dancehall in Bali. The people you meet as you explore the world force you to look inward and understand that love takes many shapes and scents, intoxicating and stirring every time.

I noticed a dark eyed wanderer on the opposing couch at my hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania. James had the kind of hair that exists for fantasizing, and a resemblance to an Irish bad boy that had my eyes frequently locked onto him.

That night, we started talking over beer and local vodka. We met a fifty-something Australian man who explained his passion for travel and two women back home. James then described how he had met and fallen in love with his girlfriend in New Zealand. I raised my eyebrows and nodded my head, taking a swig of beer to mask my feelings as I listened to him wax poetic about finding love on the road. Our Australian friend then asked me for my story. I hesitated, then mentioned a past love that had made me doubt myself. Could I find love while traveling?

After the Australian went to bed, James and I stayed up talking for hours in the hostel’s basement, curled up on bean bags philosophizing about love lost and found. I fell asleep as he asked me about my ribald humor, which has long gushed from my unfiltered, unfaltering tongue, making me both popular and notorious.

The next day we explored Vilnius and our mutual passions. Sitting at a café sipping beer and eating Lithuanian fare, we spotted at least four couples in wedding processions. Looking at the long lacy trains and veils, I remarked “I don’t think I’ll find love during my travels.” “You will,” James replied, raising his beer as we drank in unison. I left Vilnius a few hours before he did. As I hugged him goodbye, I wondered if his prediction would come true.

One month later in Mongolia, I set out in a Soviet era van-cum-sandblaster to spend eight days exploring Mongolia’s steppes and deserts. I traveled with Petra, a girl I met on the Trans-Siberian who repaired tents with floss, and Sam, a German who taught me to fire a Frisbee and dance the Rumba. As our van bounced along, I flew out of my seat missing Sam’s lap by inches. My shoulders shook in silent laughter as tears streamed from my eyes, and my butt cheeks jostled on the van’s floor. I looked up to Sam and Petra, their speech paralyzed with mirth, as they shook with me in silent joy.

Days later, we arrived at the campsite where our shaman was to commune with the spirit world, and let his body be a vehicle for centuries’ old wisdom. Petra, Sam, and I decided to take a hike before the ceremony. The climb up the steep, craggy mountains surrounding our campsite had been quick, but left us unable to talk or sing. Nonetheless, I wanted to shake it off. As Taylor Swift’s diabetically sweet lyrics belted from my smartphone, Petra, Sam, and I spun and flailed with the vigor of a toddler in a tantrum, Mongolia’s Eternal Blue Sky smiling down on us.

On the last night of our Gobi trek, we huddled close to watch shooting stars, more than I’d ever seen blaze across the sky. I can’t even begin to remember all the wishes I made, but as we lay snuggled together in our sleeping bags that night, I can’t imagine needing anything but the warmth of Sam and Petra.

A few more months passed as I rode motorbikes, busses, and trains through Southeast Asia to reach Da Lat, Vietnam. My last evening before flying to Bali, I plopped down on our hostel’s common room banquettes, sipping Vietnamese beer and checking out my neighbor’s long dark lashes and blue-green marbled eyes. Shoulder to shoulder, Nils and I sat talking about the Swiss Alps and Bond Girls, as I noticed those lashes flickering down to my lips; my eyes often fluttered to glance at his mouth, searching for the second that would lead to…

Frisson filled beers in Da Lat, heady with stolen glances and bad timing, make any night end too soon. Before running to catch my minibus, I felt nerves and excitement mingle as I wished I had one more day to spend with Nils, or one moment to pull him close.

From the mountains of Vietnam to the sands of Mongolia, I danced, cried, and laughed with people from around the world. I realized that even if I had only known someone for twenty-four hours, I could feel like a nervous teenager on her first date, hoping he’d lean in for that first kiss. I could look into my friend’s eyes as she talked of failed relationships while ricocheting down the road in a Jeep worthy van, though I would never live or work with her. I could sit at a café overlooking a manmade lake, musing on the relationships I had formed as I sucked passion fruit juice through a straw and felt the sultry breeze graze my cheek.

My home is anywhere I belong. My lovers and friends are anyone I feel drawn to, and who are drawn back to me. Life challenges me to tell the best story I can; with travel, encountering the new allows me to tell it more mindfully. Moments of ebullient luminescence expand my consciousness, so that I can more fully understand my story, and the stories around me. I doubted I would find love on the road, only to realize how it thrived in furtive glances and snorts of laughter, platonic hugs and flirtatious nights. As I travel, my passport fills with colorful stamps as the indelible marks of love open me to a world I love right back.

Scuba Sense


Port Antonio Pier by Night

Driving along Jamaica’s North Coast, I squinted across the cerulean seas of the Atlantic, daydreams of a nearby Cuba playing through my mind. Interrupting my tobacco scented reverie, a hawker approached our sardine-packed coaster bus* yelling, “Sweetie mangoes! Sweetie mangoes!” I didn’t buy any, assuming the small mangoes would be nowhere near as flavorful as my favorite variety: East Indian.

Pulling into the marina of Port Antonio, known locally as Portie, I smiled. The sea whipped up a breeze that cooled the sweat on the back of my neck as I picked up my mask and fins, hauling them to the dock for the first of my Advanced Certification dives.

A year and half had passed since my last dive, and though I remembered the freedom and ease life beneath the waves promised, I needed a few reminders on how to get there. For instance, when diving, it is necessary to put the regulator- the thing that helps you breathe- into your mouth. Who’da thunk? These minor hiccups aside, I quite literally jumped back in, finding my groove once more.


Snorkel Face is the New Duck Face 😛

The color and size of objects appear differently underwater (because science); a fish looks smaller and brighter on land. Swimming above a few damselfish, I couldn’t help wondering how perfect everything down here seemed to be, how unfettered by human touch and thought. A yellowtail damselfish is a small, solitary fish that lives close to shore, with diamond-like stars glimmering against their midnight sky coloring. I paused, fins slowly pedaling to stop me from drifting on, in awe of the tiny dots of blue splashed across their dorsal fin, as light as a brilliant summer day, and more promising. They reminded me of Swarovski crystals, of women in gowns dancing with the rest of their glitterati, of Christmas trees twinkling in snow-flecked towns whose light, caught by the numerous icicles and snowdrifts glimmered and shone like a million minuscule diamonds. But here I was, dozens of feet and meters down, looking at the fin of a fish not much bigger than my hand.

Flipping my fins away from my sparkly friend, I came across eight spiny lobster. Sitting fairly still, their long whiskery antennae floating feebly in the current, I imagined a lobster vending machine, though these weren’t animals I intended to eat.

Under the sea, time seems to stand still. Pirouetting, swimming upside down, sideways, all ways, I felt freed of the gravitational chains that bind me on land. Looking to my left, right, up, down, a complete 360° view that eclipses you on Earth, I felt that anything was possible. In a world where breathing in water is left to those with gills and flying to those with wings, scuba offers an escape, an exception to God’s rules. Below, I can fly, I can breathe, and with ease, with a mindfulness I unthinkingly eschew as I plod the concrete jungle we call home. Perhaps that is what truly draws me below: the chance to live against the rules, like a child out of Peter Pan, knowing without a doubt that one day, no matter the obstacles, I can fly!


Folly Lighthouse, Port Antonio

The chance to break free from the limits our nature imposes on us is a rare feeling, one I can only experience conscientiously. Like a child learning to walk, the world unfolds in ways previously unthought-of. To the crawling toddler, stairs are the Pyramids at Giza, but when foot connects to ground, a plethora of possibilities awaits. Though I cannot take the reality of an underwater world with me, I strive to imagine our earthly reality as a limitless plane, opportunities stretching out as far as the mind can fathom. With that scuba sense of wonder, what isn’t possible?

*How can a bus that bounces, thumps, and thuds be called a coaster?! It does everything but coast…

​Jamaican Lessons III

As of this weekend, I’ve officially lived in my community for one year. I’m not sure this is a significant milestone in terms of anything other than the earth’s rotation around the sun, but it does force a certain comparison. Specifically, how is the Sarah today different from the Sarah one year ago? Here’s some self-reflection for you, Jamaican tested and approved.

Pelicans & Palm Trees

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​A Rainy Day in Jamaica

Sitting in my bed, door opened to the gray, shrouded vista of Kingston below, tumbleweeds of mist rolled through my room, making my toes curl, and my smile light up; in that moment I knew I’d found my Jamaican home.

Kingston at twilight

Almost a year later, and one rainy Saturday got me thinking: since Jamaicans stay a yaad* when it rains, what do I do? Sense by sense, I’ll take you through my rainy day in Jamaica. Continue reading

Battle of the Bees: A Guide to Jamaican Honey

Our three contenders, from left-right: St. Thomas, St. Andrew, St. Elizabeth

Every morning I wake up to a chilly breeze silently, invisibly, invading my room. I curl my toes and shrug the blankets up to my chin. I stretch out my body, and think of my awaiting bowl of steaming oatmeal. Like clockwork, I fill up the kettle with water, flick my thumb across the lighter so the flames catch and the water boils, and add cinnamon to my bowl of instant oats. Before the kettle’s shrill cry alerts me to add the water, I pause. Bending down to grab the rum sized bottle of honey, I tip it so the golden liquid eases onto my spoon, forming an amber pool that gleams when it catches the sun. Without honey, my oatmeal would be an insipid mush.

After learning one year ago that I could get honey from local beekeepers, I vowed to get it nowhere else, and that has been one of the easiest promises to keep in Jamaica. More difficult has been deciding which honey to buy. Should I buy the esteemed logwood honey from St. Elizabeth, supposedly sweeter and more coveted than the others? Should I buy uber-local honey, from the woman across the hill in St. Andrew whose bees could very well pollinate my host family’s coffee blossoms? Or should I buy honey from the first place I purchased it in Jamaica in St. Thomas, where I trained to become a Peace Corps Volunteer? Decisions, decisions.

So like any lusty glutton, I decided to purchase all three bottles and conduct a taste test. Continue reading

​Sharing Stories

“I exist in two places, here and where you are”. – Margaret Atwood

So much of our life seems to happen in moments of waiting: sweating while a bus fills with passengers, nervously going over what you want to say before your big presentation, looking out the window as the raindrops fall, knowing your plans will be canceled before they even occur. But in these moments of waiting, we reflect, strengthening our self-awareness so that we can go out into the world and share our story with others. Reflection makes possible connection.


Relaxing at “hilltop” above my house. This is not a promotional Peace Corps picture (but maybe it should be) 😛

On the ride to church, I quietly look out upon the open vista of clouds playing tag with the mountains below. I put up my hair and lean my face towards the window to catch a breeze as I sit on the hot, gray fabric. I wait to arrive at church, to sing, to pray, to listen, and to have my thoughts wander lazily like a desultory conversation among old friends. On the ride back, however, I talk to my family, joke, and discuss the sermon or songs sung. As I play with my hair, I listen as my family kisses their teeth* or tells me, “Yu nah easy” which I generally take to mean that I’m willful. Continue reading

​Carry me, brudda

As a category 4- temporarily category 5- hurricane spirals towards Jamaica, forcing my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and I to consolidate in Kingston while leaving our host families behind, that clichéd expression slips into my brain, “I never thought this would happen to us.”

But it is happening. Walking down my goat path, rain splattering the bottom half of my cotton maxi dress and further ruining my leather sandals, I turn to look at my house. Thinking of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, I don’t linger, but turn my head as my brow furrows in anxiety, and tears well up on my rain soaked face. I’ve been away from my family for two weeks, returned for twelve hours to give out hugs and gifts from faarin*, and tell them to prepare, to get water and food, and stay safe and be safe and so many other things I can’t think of in that moment I hug them. “This can’t be the last time we see each other,” is my last thought as we embrace.

A stormy St. Andrew

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