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Globe-Trotter

I live in a world of possibilities and you know what? You do too. No matter how frugal you must be, the hours you have to work and how many hostel bunk beds or couches you crash on to get there... globe-trotting is a reality for those who truly pine to. It's about desire and choice

If travel is what you seek, I sure hope travel is what you do.

Read on for stories of adventure, smiles, fear and friendship. Tips on where to catch dinner, grab a beer or have a traditional Kitenge made can also be found. Blog posts are from past, current and future excursions. 

Travel on, my friends.

The Pain of Salsa Dancing in Africa

When Morgan asked Jeremy and I to tag along on his salsa dancing date in Uganda, I couldn’t say no. Are you kidding me? Salsa dancing— in Africa? When in the hell am I ever going to get that opportunity again? Count me in. Me and twenty-seven other American students were staying in Kampala, transitioning from our recent homestays in Gulu to our upcoming time in Kigali, Rwanda. We were given freedom to explore, but in hindsight, I don’t think our academic directors would have encouraged our trip to an unknown location so far away, especially at sundown.

 

No one we asked seemed to know exactly where to find this salsa dancing spot, but all were eager to take us there. Traveling by taxi and boda boda, we circled the vicinity of the supposed location, again and again. We were just about to give up when Jeremy spotted the landmark we’d been searching for. Expecting a club scene, we were surprised at the strip-mall local and the absence of music in our eardrums. After climbing three flights in a narrow and winding stairwell, Morgan opened a plain white door, revealing a small and brightly lit dance studio. Mirrors lined the room’s walls and the three people standing inside greeted us with smiles— two instructors and Morgan’s date. Yikes! Not at all what I was expecting. Sure, you have to be pretty adventurous and somewhat outgoing to travel to Africa without knowing a soul. But one-on-one dancing with both critical strangers’ and peers’ eyes upon you, entirely sober- mind you, is a whole different story. Definitely not my cup of tea... but, there we were! Standing in the middle of this ever-so-bright room, confronted with our awkward reflections and nervous smiles, the lesson began. A male instructor and Cynthia showed us the basics before asking us to pair up. I was lucky that Jeremy is so open and go-with-the-flow because he made a great dance partner, definitely helping me feel comfortable.

 

So...I’m in Africa, getting salsa lessons and loving it. Jeremy is my partner and we’re working on our finish— a spin move just before the final dip. We did this a few times and seemed to have it down. Woo, that was fun! Then, the instructor asks us to do it one more time for him. I think I blacked out. All I remember is hearing the loudest pop and the next thing I knew I was screaming, collapsed in Jeremy’s arms and clutching my kneecap- which was on the complete right side of my leg. The next few moments felt frozen in time, even despite the uncontrollable shaking. My skirt lay just below the knee, so the unsightliness of the situation was somewhat hidden from myself, but shown clearly upon the faces of those surrounding me. I was in panic mode; wide-eyed and sweating. They eventually raised me to a high-top chair, where everyone took turns holding my leg in a very specific position, hovering at the perfect distance and angle above ground. A centimeter of movement caused me to cry out in labor-like screams. Meanwhile, Jeremy attempted to call our academic director to send an ambulance. The entire process took far too long due to a major lack of understanding between our directors and us— about where we were and what had happened.

 

Now, don’t forget my third floor placement with only a narrow and winding staircase as our option down. The ambulance arrived thirty minutes later and all I could do was beg for pain medication. Some major convincing was done on the doctor’s part before I allowed them to move me from the chair to a stretcher oh-so-far on the ground. Ah! Once lying flat, I continually told the doctor I couldn’t let him move me again because the pain was too much, begging him to pop it in right then and there. But he refused, insisting I be taken to the hospital. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced too much pain to cry— a huge feat to anyone that knows my sensitive nature. Even writing this is making me cringe. Five people shakily carried me upon that stretcher above their heads, down the narrow and sharp turns of three floors. I was utterly terrified, even sitting up at one point, exclaiming my fear of being dropped. As they ordered me to lie back down, I realized the detriment to my panic and did just that, attempting to calm myself through breath.

 

I’m extremely lucky to have been with friends who took such good care of me. Morgan physically held me up and calmed me throughout the entire chaotic ambulance mess. And Jeremy? Without complaint, and even encouragement, let me squeeze and punch him as the flows of pain came and went. I couldn’t have asked for more. When we reached the hospital, I begged for more pain meds, demanding for a doctor to come inside the ambulance to pop my knee. The thought of moving again was surreal. To my shock, they eventually accepted my pleas and five minutes later a doctor appeared and did just that. One-two-three-POP... and back it was, forty-five minutes later, my tears finally able to flow. Cynthia, one of the salsa instructors, insisted on riding in the ambulance, continually telling me how strong I was. She held my hands as they slid my kneecap back into position and couldn’t believe how well I "handled it". I definitely didn’t feel like I handled it. I was moved by the genuine care and concern she had for me, a perfect stranger.

 

Everything happens for a reason. This once-in-a-lifetime experience in Uganda left me with both beautiful and uneasy memories, all of which I cherish fondly. As I’ve said before, adventure comes with risk... and sometimes injury and disappointment come with risk- but if life is measured in experiences... most are worth it, in the end.

 

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Just when I thought the trip's dancing days were behind me, our academic director in Rwanda told us of a cultural presentation we needed to put on for our host siblings about the US. Fortunately, Kim knew the “Single Ladies” dance and was eager to teach anyone willing to perform. I attempted to participate but my injury ultimately made the decision for me. The fabulous ladies who danced worked it! Shoot, it was on the Kigali news! Okay, the presentation was more than just a booty-licious dance, consisting of extreme hula-hooping performances, a good ol’ “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” sing-a-long and facts about each of our states. I was proud to do my part by educating everyone about the high five state, along with my fellow Michigander, Joe. I’m sure all of Kigali was equally as appalled when Wisconsin attempted to steal that title from us. Silly, Wisconsin.

 

 "Single Ladies" performance in Kigali.

"Single Ladies" performance in Kigali.

 Representing the high five state, with an out of position pinky. Photo credit: Apollon Kabahizi

Representing the high five state, with an out of position pinky. Photo credit: Apollon Kabahizi

Avoiding Theft and Beggars as a Foreign Traveler

Traversing a new land is both exhilarating and exhausting. Though I strive to see the good in all people, I've learned the difference between being open and friendly and being naive. The danger of traveling in a country that's foreign to you is real and should not be ignored. I'm not telling you to hide solely within your comfort zone, but instead, asking you to open your eyes and use your senses. No one wants to feel on edge throughout a trip. By following these simple guidelines you'll be on your way to smarter and safer traveling.

Monkeys can be the peskiest and most violent beggars. 

The most important advice I can offer when visiting an unknown place is to first, be very alert and aware of your surroundings at all times and secondly, trust your gut. Take a minute before brushing the latter off as cliche. I've traveled to third world countries and have spent time in fairly dangerous regions. In my experience, instincts have helped keep me safe while still allowing me to live freely. So, go on and be free and build lasting relationships along the way. But first and foremost- be cautious and use your head.

If traveling with expensive electronics, I'd plan on carrying them with you. The only way I'd leave my camera behind would be inside a secured locker. Pick-pocketing and personal theft is, unfortunately, a huge problem in poorer countries. But, lets not ignore it's prevalence in big cities and large public transportation areas as well. There are obvious ways to lower your risk of such theft by securely strapping your bag to your body, carrying it in front rather than behind and placing locks on double zippers. Though, even this won't always deter a thief. I've read of criminals who slash bags' bottoms while attached to the owner, the contents dropping to the ground, quickly scooped up and ran off with.

To avoid becoming a target of theft, it's smart to remove or cover up any big name-brands displayed on the outside of your bag. This way, at least you're not advertising it's contents or your ability to afford such a brand. My camera backpack has Canon spelled out in five strategic locations on the bag's exterior. Shown in photos at the end of this post, I hand-sewed fabric over the large tag along the top, but didn't stop there. Three additional strips of fabric were added to help blend this cover-up into the bag's design. Tags with stitched brand names can easily be colored over with a black permanent marker. This won't cover up the name entirely, but will make smaller, white-on-black tags far less noticeable. The zipper pulls all say Canon on my camera bag and even though these are rather small, they're easily read while stationary in a congested or closed-in area. You can purchase plain pulls and swap them out with little pliers, or refer to my photos for another, more decorative possibility. Digital SLR cameras are typically black, making electrical tape your trusty friend. Using fine-end scissors, cut small strips to go over the "Nikon", "Canon", or "Fuji" names on both the body and lens.

For backpacks, a rain cover is a really smart purchase. Not only will it conceal your personal items from last minute weather changes, but will also block hands from potentially entering outer pockets and pouches. A rain cover could also save you from having to hide branded tags, if worn at all times. The only downfall to a 24-7 cover is the minor inconvenience of taking it off each time you want inside.

If visiting a region where wild monkeys roam, don't carry any food on you- unless you don't mind losing your entire bag! They will attack you for it. May sound kind of funny, but I'm positive you won't be laughing when it happens to you! It's also smart to avoid eye contact, as it may come off threatening. If you happen to be caught eating as a wild monkey approaches, you definitely want to throw the food far away from you. Please don't make the mistake of underestimating these cute little beings because they can be extremely aggressive and violent. 

When traveling by train or bus, keep bags with important contents by your feet. The compartment overhead may seem safe enough, but in high-crime cities, many become victim to fellow passengers grabbing their packs and running off.

As far as beggars, be confident and firm with your answers. When approached for money on the streets, promise to never "donate" to this cause- for numerous reasons. Strongly say NO and walk away. If the person follows, make it known to those around that you are being harassed. You don't want to participate in keeping kids on the streets, am I right? Impoverished parents and child-slave owners use innocent children to beg for money because, over time, they've learned how people take more pity upon street children than adult beggars. Unfortunately, some parents even keep their kids from attending school so they can be used for begging purposes. Real life horror stories exist of abducted children transported to new locations, purposely mutated to attract sympathy from passerby's. Believe it. These innocent souls unwillingly have their limbs chopped off to, ultimately, generate more income for their captors. 

You may not believe that giving money has anything to do with theft, but look at it this way. If a child you give money to has a threatening superior forcing them to work on the streets, that child is not benefitting from your "donation" in any way. The boss man takes your money and uses it to continue his vicious cycle, sending children out on the streets day after day. Handing over a few shillings or pesos may seem harmless, but you're really enabling this street life, child labor and slavery.

Another reason to never pull cash out on the streets is to conceal both where your money is kept and the amount you're currently carrying. No matter how discrete you may feel, there's no predicting what the beggar or overseer might do. Simply put, it's best not to make yourself a target by avoiding showing any money on the open streets- especially while visiting a foreign country. Tourists are believed to carry cash and can be pinpointed for this stereotype.

Leading into my final tip; blend in with the locals. Before leaving, do your research on what current fashion and dressing stipulations are expected within that region. If showing your knees or shoulders is considered immodest, pack appropriately. Not only do you want to show respect for the culture, but if safety is top priority, you don't want to draw unwanted attention to yourself.

My host mother dressed me in her Sari before going shopping for my own. A few days prior to our goodbyes, she told me "You're just like a real Indian girl. You really are."

And this may seem obvious, but it's important enough to mention. When traveling to a poorer area, don't wear your expensive-looking earrings, flashy watch, or designer shoes. Even if you got them for "cheap", you'll stick out like an even sorer thumb- advertising your relative wealth to all. It might seem cute to announce your American nationality, inability to speak the local language and that you're completely lost... but it's not. Comments like these will leave you exposed as vulnerable and naive. 

That being said, I've befriended some amazing people and seen incredible places by striking up conversations with strangers in other countries. I toured Jaipur, Rajasthan in 2011 with four young men and a family of three whom I met earlier that day. By the final destination, we were all sharing food and laughing like old friends. After the tour, I hopped into a taxi with the four gentlemen and took it into the city's center. Overlooking the radiant sky of a setting sun and the bustling Indian city below, we found ourselves upon a rooftop restaurant; drinking beer, smoking hookah and sharing about our lives. Strangers at dawn and true friends by dusk.

Instincts have greatly aided in decisions regarding my safety, but have never seemed to hinder the adventure in my travels. Without a little risk and faith, I never would have stood in awe of the Taj Mahal or been given the private, palace-grounds tour in Fatehpur Sikri. I never would have traveled around Uganda with a dance and theatre group or slept in a hut in a remote IDP camp. Without risk, I never would have ridden on the back of that boda boda back to Gulu, flying down a dirt road, weaving around the most pot holes I'd ever seen. And that's coming from a Michigander! 

In fact, without risk, I never would have traveled at all. We're constantly taking chances in life. Don't live in fear, but at the same time... take caution and feel things out. Most importantly, listen to yourself. If a situation feels off, trust that vibe and flee. Otherwise, take the proper precautions, use your head, have faith and take the risk.

Following these rough guidelines will place you in the right mindset to explore the unknown by listening to and balancing your head, heart and surrounding environment.

Observations From an Outsider, Rajasthan, India.

What may be everyday practice to a local can be seen as utterly bizarre or comical to a foreigner. Taken from my journal, I compiled a short list of observations from an outsider while visiting India in 2011. Now, I share it with you:

  • Men pee on every wall and any wall in public.

  • Cows chill in the medians of roads- even during hectic rush hour–seemingly content.

  • Women are very symmetrical with their jewelry. Exactly the same bangles are worn on each arm, same toe ring on the same toe of each foot and matching anklets.

  • No one uses toilet paper.

  • Camels and elephants are just other normal means of transportation.

  • Families routinely eat dinner as late as 11pm, depending on the day’s activities. My host family typically eats between 9 and 10.

  • Belly showing when wearing a sari = normal. Clothing revealing your shoulders = improper.

  • It’s not only accepted, but encouraged to throw all unwanted trash out the window while in a moving vehicle.

 

Recorded: March 24, 2011 in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.