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Ok, I know what I said the other day, but I think I have a NEW favorite street.

I arrived in Paris scheduled to the hilt: I had 2.75 days to do what was more realistically probably 2 weeks of touring, but by God, I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Just I Overachieve At Peace Corps and everything else I do, on that unexpected day when they give out medals for Overachieving At Being A Tourist In Paris, I intended to be on the highest podium. I would give a humorous yet deeply moving valedictory speech and inspire generations. ( I have no off switch, remember?)

But if ever there were a city that encouraged one to crumple up your timetables and toss them over a bridge railing, it’s Paris. I spent roughly 24 slightly stressful hours determined to do things like shoehorn a half-day walking tour into 2 hours before I realized I would be much happier seeing less but taking more time. (And become Valedictorian of Seeing Things Slowly While Eating Crepes. ::cough::) I no longer timed my leisurely ambles and lacked any compelling reason not to spend an hour seated on the edge of the Fontaine Saint-Michel nibbling a pastry and people-watching. I could spend a lifetime in Paris and never see it all, so I may as well enjoy the parts I can.

Fountain of St. Michael

Arc de Triomphe

At the fountain in the Place de Concorde

A bridge near the Louvre, where it is said that walking with your sweetheart, attaching a padlock, and throwing away the key with ensure lifelong love. ( The French generally dispute this notion, and I’m inclined to buy into their worldview on this one.) Serendipitously, I DID have a pair of surplus non-TSA compliant luggage locks in my Mary Poppins-esque purse. However, I had no particular true love in mind at that moment, and choosing someone near at random (“Hot Train Guy”? “Dude With A Gorgeous Accent From The Brasserie”?) seemed inadvisable (what if he’s a serial killer? Or a cat person?) so I just sat on a bench beneath it and watched the happy couples seek out the perfect lock spot.

Lighting a candle in Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (and silently dedicating it to the living martyrdom of Pussy Riot. St Joan of Arc [background] knows a thing or two about common folk speaking out against those in power.)

The famed Palace of Versailles. Of the 29 million tourists who visit Paris each year, 22 million of them can be found here on any given day, and 80% of them will be directly in front of you in line as you queue for the loo and/or to retrieve your complimentary audio guide.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the affability of the people I’ve encountered. No doubt influenced by Hollywood, but also first-person accounts of friends who’ve lived/studied abroad here and fellow backpackers on this trip, I’d been informed that Parisians have a reputation for a certain … aloofness, if you will. The vague surliness of ennui that we would all doubtless cultivate if forced to cope with the inherent hardships of living in a clean, stable city filled with art, culture, reliable public transport, endless excellent food, and accessible socialized healthcare. In fairness, much worse statements have been made of New Yorkers: we’re all loud-mouthed assholes ready to shoot you over a parking spot. (For many people, this isn’t far off the mark, but it’s half the charm of the city.) To quote a friend who spent a summer here, “[There exists a] particular brand of Parisian nastiness that emerges throughout the city. They can be mean, but it’s never without intrigue, if that makes sense; and they’re never so mean that the experience ever approaches unbearable.”

Perhaps it is merely the contrast to Romania that is playing havoc with my perception; there, a woman working an information desk at the train station responded to a polite inquiry with a hostile “HOW SHOULD I KNOW?! ASK SOMEONE ELSE!” and gazed at me with a contemptuous look that said, “Only my many years of training and utmost self-control are preventing me from leaping this desk and throttling the life out of you right now.” My grievous sin in this exchange had been to ask which track number I could expect Train 123 [or whichever] to be departing from. And that is but one of many many examples of the kind of Romanian hospitality there I experienced. So perhaps against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that a waiter’s reply to a statement of gratitude as “Uh-huh” (instead of the “You are welcome, miss” that traditional Southern hospitality would dictate) should be seen as almost a statement of tender affection. Regardless of cause, virtually all of my interactions – from policemen to hoteliers to random people I grabbed in the Metro to ask for directions – have been pleasant.

Booksellers on the “left bank” of the Seine. Here you can browse very old books, prints of art created by Parisian artists, and extremely impressive collections of vintage erotic postcards.

A line of souvenir-selling stalls behind the Notre Dame cathedral, peddling countless identical pieces of mass-produced crap that we all love. In several, I narrowly avoided ejection by leaving on my own, having been scolded by shopkeepers to stop swirling the snowglobes, opening music boxes, or running my fingertips over plaster reproductions of famous sculptures. I am so inexcusably tactile that I could never do so. If you chopped off both of my hands as a preventative measure, I’d probably walk in and start licking things.

My very own mass-produced souvenirs. I would have sprung for the ceramic statue depicting the Eiffel Tower as built from baguettes with a crepe French flag at the top, but I was concerned it would break in my luggage.

There’s a lot to love about Paris, obviously, but one of the things that keeps coming to mind is the hobbit-like existence it seems to encourage. A lot of time seems to pass like this:

1. Eat a freshly-prepared and delicious breakfast, then linger over coffee for it to digest.
2. Explore immediate surroundings. Make plans to visit outlying location.
3. Realize outlying location really is a rather long walk away; find self forced to fortify with another artisanal pastry and large glass of wine.
4. Walk to outlying location.
5. Lunch.

And how can it not be this way? The French culinary tradition is bar-none one of the finest in the world. Rather than gulping down enormous portions of over-fried but ultimately tasteless food, as we do in the US, food is an end in itself, to be savored slowly and with generous pours of wine.

Lunch on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées: traditional Paris crepe of ham, cheese, and egg, with a creamy lemon vinaigrette-dressed side salad and rather ample glass of Chablis, followed by an orange zest crème brulee (not pictured).

Cheese, wine, crusty bread. The basic Parisian food groups.

Don’t quote me on this – Paris is a city that likes to keep her secrets – but I’m fairly certain this restaurant doesn’t actually serve food. When you walk in the door, the floor drops out from under you and deposits you in an underground chamber. There, Paris’s scores of Michelin-star rated chefs take turns hitting you with a cricket bat.

I’m not disappointed that I failed to make it through my entire must-see list. Already I am making plans for my next time in Paris: next time I will make it to Vincennes, next time I will rent a vespa so I can cover more ground, next time I will make a reservation for a 3-Star Michelin restaurant and treat myself to a tasting menu, next time, next time, next time … You see, Paris is not a city like Kigali, or Bujumbura, or Dubai, or Doha, to be ticked off a list in the past-tense with a satisfied adventurer’s smile. It is a place to be revisited and rediscovered as your mood and life circumstances suit. I suspect it genuinely is a place that stays with you, and not in the “Malaria: a gift that keeps on giving” sense.

I’ll be back, Paris.

Count on it.

Bosphorus Bridge by night, serving as a gateway between Europe and Asia

I’ve always wanted to come to Turkey – it seems a place out of an Agatha Christie novel as much as a real country. Steeped in history, intrigue, and delicious candies worth betraying your family over; who wouldn’t want that? Then, while attending college, I took an Islamic Art & Architecture class (with the glorious and magnificent Professor S. Aberth, one of my favorite professors EVER outside the psychology department, shout out to Bard kids reading this) that sent Turkey rocketing to my Top Three Destinations list. It assumed a vaulted position of great import, alongside Ethiopia and Iran.

And luckily so, because Istanbul has been everything I dreamed it would be, and then some.

Sipping Turkish Coffee while contemplating the domes and spires of the Hagia Sophia. Be still, my geeky travel-oriented heart.

Domed walkway in the Topkapi Palace

My earphoned Audioguide and I at an overlook of the Bosphorus Strait.

The food is excellent, the coffee plentiful – although, I’m sorry to say, still not quite as good as Ethiopia’s – the history rich, the art beautiful, and the people extraordinarily welcoming. To a fault, almost. In the United States, we really like our privacy and our personal space. I’m well aware that many, perhaps even most, cultures are more social than we. (Kenya was certainly no exception: many a PCV was troubled to discover that the response to telling someone you’re sick is to have the entire village descend on your house to visit, chat, check on you, wait to be offered tea, and offer their discursive opinions about everything you’re doing wrong in terms of your health.) But Turkey seems to have the most genuinely social people I’ve encountered in all my travels, which now exceed 30 countries.

World’s oldest love poem, written in cuneiform and displayed at the Turkish Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

I arrived in Istanbul near sundown on an ordinary weekday, and as my taxi wound its way through traffic towards my hotel, I found myself enchanted by the site of hundreds of people happily throwing down elaborate rugs to picnic. Every green space, every park, every patch of bare ground along the Bosphorus had been claimed: families, couples, endless groups of friends. Even sidewalks weren’t safe from revelers. It gave the air of having stumbled upon a very large street festival in the process of engulfing the whole city. I commented on this to the taxi driver and was told that this isn’t merely the result of Ramadan restrictions; year-round, people will take every opportunity they can to sprawl in the outdoors with a hamper full of Turkish treats, or gather around family tables piled high with food. Eating is a social affair. Everything is a social affair, at that. An experience isn’t quite lived unless shared, he explained.

Even traveling alone, I did not find myself exempt from this cultural gregariousness. If you’ve traveled enough, you’re uncomfortably familiar with “confidence men” and cons of every kind who make their livings preying on tourists, many of them setting up lures and ploys under the guise of hospitality. Someone approaches you and strikes up a conversation. They compliment your looks or express a desire to practice their language skills with a “real English speaker.” They offer tea, or fruit, or special “shortcut” directions to a much-sought-after landmark. But almost inevitably, these pleasantries come at a price: you are offered a hard luck story about an aunt with “heart cancer” and asked for money, or met with increasingly obtrusive demands that you return the generosity by buying some overpriced crap from their shop. You are propositioned for a green card, a work sponsorship, or (especially for women) a “special date.” There are 1,000 variations, and at this point I feel like I’ve heard them all. Istanbul is no exception. It has come as a genuine shock, then, that I’ve met so many people who AREN’T trying to sell me something, secure immigration sponsorship, or sweet talk their way into my bed. I hope I don’t sound cynical in saying that, but it’s a truth known to virtually all Peace Corps Volunteers – and Turkey has charmed me completely by bucking the trend.

I’ve spent many, many hours wandering through sites of historical significance, and I would guess almost as many hours chatting with ordinary people about Turkey, America, or my life in Kenya. I’ve found myself in carpet-filled sitting rooms taking tea with legions of neighbors/cousins/family friends, keeping them enthralled with Life In The Village stories, while an eldest son (currently on holiday from attending university in America) translates. I’ve met women from such far-flung locations as Sydney, London, Tokyo, and the Carolinas who came as tourists and never left. I’ve giggled at furtively-told stories of ostentatious celebrity tourists who think nothing of dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars in an afternoon on opulent Turkish furnishings. I agreed to help a restaurant owner’s nephew practice his English, and ended up discussing European economic policy for nearly an hour, with someone who’s living the financial crisis in real time vis a vie their proximity to Greece. I’ve had conversations as to the relative health benefits of water-pipe tobacco as compared to traditional cigarettes with garrulous waterpipe attendants. (Verdict: Yes, the smoke temperature is lower, and the tobacco doesn’t have the added carcinogens and added preservatives found in a pack of Lucky Strikes. But one cube of hookah tobacco is the weight equivalent of 22 average-sized cigarettes. This I was told right before the attendant asked, very sweetly, “Shall I add another coal to your pipe, madam?” Erm, no thank you, I’m good.)

There were some people who wanted me to give them money, either through buying things or just flat out. There always are. But the majority of people were merely polite, welcoming, and genuinely curious about my unique travel and life experiences. With a handful, even the suggestion of obligatory shop patronage or offering to share nargile was met with an unexpectedly chilly response: was I unfamiliar with Turkish hospitality? The timeless rules of host and guest?

I’ll say it again: thoroughly and utterly charmed. Five stars. I’ll be back.

Underground Cistern dating back to the Romans.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

View from the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Baklava: breakfast of champions.

Me resting against some of the 500-year-old tiles in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace. One of my favorite things about Islamic architecture is the exquisite attention to detail; I could talk all day about the colors and patterns in different kinds of tilework alone. (No, seriously, I could. Be careful about asking unless you have nowhere else to be.)

Closet door in the Topkapi Palace paneled in 100% real mother-of-pearl

Sitting area – see what I mean about the detail?

Sun setting over the Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Square, decorated for Ramadan.

Yeah. It was kinda like that.

In Kenya, there is a brand of alcohol simply called “Safari.” They make an assortment of products – gin, vodka, whiskey – although I’m fairly certain it’s all the same thing, but with different labels. The taste is interchangeable; that is, each and every one tastes like hand sanitizer. But it’s cheap, and when you’re living on $4-6 a day, you find you can choke down a lot of things you wouldn’t ordinarily: slightly-off milk, rice full of weevils … and when you’re having a social evening with other PCVs, the occasional Purell-flavored vodka tonic. I can only guess that if it were exported to the US, its only legal use would be to strip the varnish off of speedboats.

Suffice to say that, with few notable exceptions, the cocktails I’ve enjoyed over the past two years have generally been of less-than-stellar quality. I went out for drinks only rarely, partly because I was a “site rat” and my companions would have mostly been an especially irritating brand of expat, and part because (as I said before) we were paid peanuts. Nonetheless, for most of my life, I’ve harbored a shameful secret:

I’m a wine snob.

I’m a wine snob who can’t *actually* afford to be a wine snob, but likes the idea anyway.

In college, I discovered that if you aren’t afraid to ask for help at the liquor store, you can drink surprisingly excellent wine for under $15. I kept an absurdly meticulous journal of what I did and didn’t like about particular wines, including occasional commentary about the artwork on the box. (Go ahead! Laugh. Everyone does.) I discovered a secret distaste for punch-like Pinot Noir and an overwhelming fondness for spicy, springy Shiraz. Kenya does a few things excellently, and many things passably well; unfortunately, wine isn’t among either of those. A glass of “house red,” when sipped, tends to conjure images someone furtively smashing out the back window of a church in the middle of the night and making off with their bought-by-the-barrel communion offerings. But my luck turned: after two years in the village, I found myself headed to a part of the world renowned for its Syrah grapes – the Western Cape of South Africa. I was giddy.

Mountains of the Western Cape looming over the vineyards of the Solms-Delta Winery.

At least, I was giddy until I realized that I’d missed my bus by nearly an hour and the certainty of my adventure very much in doubt.

Spoiler alert – all’s well that ends well; but I’m going to start off the meat of this post by giving my very first Double-Plus Good ThisAmerikenyan Life Offishul Endorsement:

When you’re in South Africa, come to Cape Town, and book the Story of of Wine tour with the Wine Desk company. If possible, ask for Fern as your guide.

That’s not a suggestion, it’s a directive.

Fermentation vats at the Tokara Winery.

They couldn’t collect me from my guest house – I was staying way out in the suburbs, so I can’t blame them – so I arrived at our predetermined pick-up point a good half-hour early (I’m like that.) BUT THEN TRAGEDY STRUCK. Owing to a little confusion, a touch of inexplicable duplicity, and a bizarre deluge of misinformation from someone we may suspect have been from a rival touring company (long story, ask me over more wine), at the time of the rendezvous, I was on the other end of the neighborhood, happily) eating a danish and watching seals frolic in the early-morning sun. Fern the tour guide searched for me for almost 20 minutes (!!) before deciding The Tour Must Go On and setting off for the first winery. When I discovered this, I managed to contact the company, which seemed genuinely distraught at my dilemma and offered to do anything to “make this right” (even though they hadn’t done anything to make it wrong to begin with.) I expected an offer of refunding my $20 deposit, but no! The bull goose of the operation himself, a sweet and soft-spoken South African man named Bruce, whose passion for sharing wine country is intense and obvious, picked me up personally (gratis) and raced through traffic to meet the tour van at its first stop. But hey, at least this time we had seatbelts and a vehicle designed to go 100kmph.

As we screeched to a stop amidst a spray of gravel in the parking lot of the first winery, our guide emerged from the wine lodge. “OH MY GOD WE’RE SO GLAD YOU MADE IT WE WERE SO WORRIED WE LOOKED ALL OVER FOR YOU …” she babbled on as she bodily dragged me inside. Before I could mutter greetings, I found myself in a comfy chair by the fireplace, a glass of sparkling Chardonnay in my hand, with four very concerned strangers empathetically coaxing out the story of my morning.

I could tell immediately it was going to be a good day despite all. I’d been fearful that an activity with a yuppie-ish reputation like Wine Tasting (even the great English travel writer Bill Bryson casts aspersions) would result in me being the only person on the tour without blue hair. But alas! Rather than a coach jam-packed with pensioners, I found myself in a very pleasant oversize van with three other tourists in their 20s. The tiny tour group made for a very intimate experience, with conversations instead of microphone lecture (“On your left you will see vines …”).

Traditionally, when you’re tasting a lot of wine, you’re poured a bit – maybe a quarter of a glass – which you swirl, sniff, sip, then spit and cleanse your palette to prepare for the next sample. But all four of us were of the opinion that this was a criminal waste of *excellent* local wines, so even if we’d felt stand-offish or awkward at first, we ended up having a jolly nice time indeed.

Tasting bar at the Fairview Winery. All those framed things on the back wall are awards.

Our guide was relentlessly chatty – but I mean that in the fondest way possible. I’ve met Labrador Retrievers that didn’t love their jobs or lives that much. In addition to being quite well-informed on the topics of wine country and South African history, her enthusiasm for her work infused the tour like floral scents at a mall candle store, and you got the impression she was genuinely happy to have you along. We were all greatly pleased to be there anyway, but even if we hadn’t been, it would have been impossible not to crack a grin and enjoy yourself after marinating in our guide’s glee for a little while.

We made it to four wineries in all, including one that offered an excellent variety of different kinds of olive oil (we mutually agreed each was excellent, though rather indistinguishable, despite variations in description and price), one where we were given a dark chocolate pairing with the Shiraz, and one where each wine was followed up by a field trip to the cheese bar to gorge ourselves on over a half-dozen types offered for sampling. (Verdict: Everything pairs nicely with everything else. Nothing offered was anything short of delicious. I apologize if that isn’t the keen, discerning reportage you’ve come to expect from me over the years I’ve kept this blog.) I did my best to keep notes, but over the course of the day, they slowly evolved for “2009 Sauvignon Blanc, greenish-gold-sunlight color, olfactory leader of apples and vanilla, hints of pine? on the back of the tongue” to “Red, 2011/2???, goat on the bottle, VERY TASTY.”

Combination wineyard/olive tree orchard at the Tokara Winery.

Namesake for the “Goats Do Roam” series of wines at the Fairview Winery. (Oenological pun very much intended.)

As we piled into the van for return trips to our respective guest houses, the guide pulled me aside to apologize once more for my rough morning – even though she bore literally zero responsibility for the mix-up. She re-iterated that she was glad I’d finally made it and presented me with a bottle of sparkling Shiraz, the signature wine of one of the vineyards we’d visited and one of my favorite wines from the day. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, and really above and beyond the call of tour-giving duty.

To re-iterate in brief my directive to follow in my footsteps: the Stellenbosch wine country is stunningly beautiful on its own, and even if you don’t drink, if you like cheese or chocolate or olives or nature or views or driving places that are pretty or seeing goats climb towers you’ve GOT to put this one on your bucket list. While you’re here, you can go with any number of companies, that are probably fine and all, or you can go with a company that goes out of its way to make your time with them joyful. The staff is dedicated and enthusiastic, the sites they visit are excellent and diverse, the value for the money is so good that I question how comfortable their profit margin must be (transport + guidance + lunch + four wine tastings [20+ wines] + olive oil tasting [7-8 oils] + cheese tasting [a dozen cheeses] + chocolate = <$70USD), and they will do anything to right a wrong, even if it's a wrong they had no part in creating.

I ended the day overstuffed, tipsy, and radiant with the joy that comes form a day overdosing on amazing comestibles and jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. I suspect this may not be my last trip to South African wine country.

When in doubt, just make NEW friends. (I’m the one on the left, in the hat.)

I travel alone a lot. I also catch fair amount of flack about it. People have been subtly (or not so subtly) insinuating I’m naive, or reckless, or otherwise youthfully unhinged since I declared my intention to go to Rwanda alone when I was in East Africa the first time around, back in 2007; some friends ended up wanting to come with, so it was a non-issue, but I’d already decided I wasn’t fearful of the prospect. Since then, I’ve been to a number of countries without pre-ordained companions, some of which gave my family and friends a collective heart attack to hear about (Damascus is lovely, I tell you, heartbreaking current events aside). At present, as you well know, I’m planning on passing through perhaps a dozen countries as I slowly wind my way back to America. In several, I have friends or friends-of-friends expecting me. I arrived in Ethiopia with two of my closest friends from Peace Corps, and we had a grand old time I wouldn’t trade for the world. But in a few other places … well. I’ll probably be going solo.

I’m not going to post my exact itinerary, guest house location, and room number on my blog; I’m taking smart precautions, honed from lived experience, travel guides, and general common sense. But being a moderately pretty 24-year-old blonde chick stomping alone through Africa MAY sound like the start of a “Law and Order: Hague Edition” episode, and yet … it’s less intimidating than you might expect. Certainly less intimidating than you’d believe if you formed your reactions based on the looks I get from people in airports, or friends who haven’t spent extensive time overseas.

You see, the world tends to be unfair towards women – I’ll whole-heartedly agree with you there – but its danger overall is overstated. The media is giddy to build for us a world wherein to leave your house is to put yourself at 50/50 odds from being bludgeoned with a hammer, or abducted by bandits, or shot by marauding separatists, even in the US. When we allow ourselves to develop our intuition and permit ourselves to gauge risk based on situational street smarts rather than what Fox News tells us, we realize that simple precautions will go a long way in most places. Sometimes it works out ok, and sometimes it doesn’t – a degree of risk is inherent in everything we do. But should that prevent us from accomplishing things that are meaningful to us? Or should we wait for ideal conditions in all things?

I have traveled with large groups, small groups, and as one-half of a pair. I would be hard-pressed to rank one above the rest. Each has its definite pros and cons. Sometimes, there’s nothing more fulfilling than to turn to someone and, while pointing, say “Look! This is a thing! A thing that is cool! Let us acknowledge it mutually and share in the experience of seeing this cool thing!” Conversely, with large groups, you can often turn an otherwise costly trip into a more economically agreeable one, splitting cabs and hotel rooms among more folk than is (probably) advisable. It has its charms, to be certain.

I could go on. I certainly don’t dislike traveling with other people. I am not some reclusive misanthrope, staring daggers at people who want to share my bus seat, waving a stick at children while hollering, “GET OFFA MY LAWN!” (At least, not after I’ve had my second cup of morning coffee.) Few and far between are the traveling companions I haven’t *completely adored.* I’ve been innumerable places where someone else added so much to the experience, I live eternally in their debt and wouldn’t trade the experience for all the tea in a hipster commune. (It can also provide some measure of logistical support and security that may not be strictly necessary but IS awfully encouraging.) Nonetheless, I don’t I see bunching up and moving in herds as a traveler’s imperative. I can handle most things by myself, thank you very much. As can you, in all likelihood, if you give yourself the chance.

When did our culture, particularly my generation, decide doing *anything* alone is inherently shameful or frightening? We are a nation of secret introverts, more connected in superficial ways than ever before, and probably less happy for it. At the end of all things, what are we so afraid of?

Separatists, bandits, and hammer-wielding maniacs, perhaps. Or perhaps just what we’ll find if we’re left alone with our thoughts for too long, without our nearest and dearest – or failing that, any of our 359 (on average) Facebook friends – to interrupt us. You never know what’s lurking in the back of your mind.

“But don’t you get lonely?”

No. Yes. Both of those things, and neither – and is being lonely always such a terrible thing? It’s not bad, it’s different. The difference between cooking a gourmet meal at home or going to a restaurant with a raucous group of friends, or the difference between a jolly midnight film screening and watching a Netflix in bed on a rainy day. Each experience is valuable in its own way, and enjoyable, but for distinctive reasons. Neither can be held as inherently “better” or “worse” than the other; it all depends on expectation and attitude.

And when the genuine isolation of overseas travel begins to creep to an uncomfortable level, it helps to remember that the world is perhaps now a smaller place than it ever has been, with connections more easily formed, and shared experience more easily discovered. What I have found is this: there are “bad” people in the world – you don’t need me to tell you that – whose intent is solely to harm you, or profit from you at your expense. Far more numerous are indifferent people, who in my humble view are all the more frightening for their ambivalence, and for whom the maintenance or degradation of your general well-being is of less consequence than the soda options on their next flight.

But most important, and equal in number perhaps to those who are “bad,” are people who are good, and kind, and genuinely want to help. People who think little of pausing in their own hectic routines to sketch a map for you, or direct you through a particularly labyrinthine airport. People who will end conversations by tearing a page out of a book with a phone number or an e-mail address on it: This is my sister-in-law, she lives in Dubai, she’d be happy to recommend places comfortable for lady-travlelers. This is the phone number for Steve, he runs a trekking outfit in Victoria but his wife and kids live in Harare, if you run into any trouble there are no kinder people in the world to ask for help; best mate I ever had. Don’t misread me: anyone who knows me can tell you I view most people with a healthy degree of suspicion until proven otherwise, and I’d not recommend trusting all comers willy-nilly. But the kindness of strangers isn’t always to be rebuffed. Travelers form their own networks; in this sense, even when traveling solo, are we ever really alone?

I could delve into that question on a deeper, more existential level, but I have a lingering brunch and a fond companion (in the form of a local newspaper) waiting for me. If you need me, I’ll be over here lustily stuffing my face with mandaazi and not caring who, if anyone, is watching. You’re welcome to join me, if you wish. Or don’t. Take the table next to mine.

You may find you like it.

“The Falls, outstanding – scenes so lovely, they must have been gazed upon by angels in flight.”

– from the diary of David Livingstone


The first billboard you see when you leave the airport in Lusaka had a panoramic view of Victoria Falls and some asinine tagline like, “Welcome to Zambia – the land of thundering smoke.” I commented idly on this to my taxi driver, and he nodded. “Yes yes, Mosi-Oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ in my father’s language, the Tonga language.”

I thought about this for a moment, then told him the story of Uluru, Australia’s most famous inland landmark. Long considered a sacred site by the indigenous Aborigine people, it was “discovered” (or “first spotted by a white dude”) in 1873 by British surveyor William Gosse. This memorable monolith outside of Alice Springs was dubbed “Ayer’s Rock” (in honor of the Secretary Chief of Australia, Henry Ayers) for over a century. In 1993, the Australian government decided that after centuries of systematically crushing the Aborigines under their collective boot heel, the least they could do would be to return this site to indigenous stewardship. It still draws tens of thousands of people every year, but is now known by its more respectful Aboriginal name: Uluru.

The driver made all the polite response sounds one makes when listening to a boring story by someone you’re being paid to be helpful towards. I then asked him: what did he think of the potential for doing the same for Victoria Falls?

At this, he rolled his eyes and made the sort of “thk-thk”-ing noise I’ve come to associate with village Mamas judging the length of my dress. “A thing is a thing and a name is a name,” he said cryptically, “Isn’t it?”

I asked him to clarify.

“People are always meddling with things that have no need or cause to be meddled. Changing the name will not undo the colonial period in our history. It WILL undo the recognition tourists have for one of the World’s Greatest Wonders. Don’t you see?” His explanation continued, pointing to the most pragmatic of reasons for letting it stay as-is:


More than a century of free advertising – Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the crown jewel of the African jungle! – has worked its magic. Why gamble with the almighty tourist dollar?

Which, having seen the number of people drawn in for booze cruises and bungee jumping and sunrise hikes and ultra-light plane flights and full moon lunar rainbow galas and hang glider adventures and cross-border viewing safaris and zip-lining and observation-deck photographing and white-water rafting and inflatable kayaking and plunge-taking and Falls-swimming and horseback riding and everything else, I am quick to agree … that dollar is nothing to sneer but.

He makes a salient and thoughtful point.

But regardless of the name, regardless of EVERYTHING … Victoria Falls (or Mosi-oa-Tunya) is every bit as magnificent as you’ve heard.

Perhaps even more so.

Whatever they call it, it will always take your breath away.

Our chariot awaits …

Me, in the helicopter swooping over the falls

The heavy scent of incense, the swish of gauzy white gowns, jaw-droppingly beautiful natural features serving to frame manmade structures (such as the monolithic stone churches) that strain credulity. Ethiopia is a land with history rich enough to rival Rome or Damascus, which now seeks to come into its own as the “political capital of Africa.” With all that, narrowing it down to my favorite handful of sites is terribly tricky. Had I the time and money, I’d stay here a month, exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the ancient walled city of Gonder, the hyena conservation center/ill-thought-out petting zoo of Harar … but alas, I’m not, and I can’t. I stuck to Addis and Axum. From those two, I recommend:

1) Axum day tour – When you are told that more than 90% of the potential archaeological treasure holds of Axum remain unexcavated, lacking even the most cursory of once-overs with picks and shovels, you’re left with the same general sense as when you hear that more than 90% of the world’s Girl Scout cookies are not personally consumed by you: a vague melancholy of “What if…?” quickly overridden by pleasure and wonder at the extraordinary offerings there already are. Because, seriously, guys. There is so much stuff. If you have any interest – any WHATSOEVER – in history, commerce, archaeology, geology, stoneworking, hagiography, or just really cool old stuff, you will be instantly enamored.

Any time history is involved, there are no firm answers. Take, for example, the Queen of Sheba, the legend of which is one of Axum’s most beloved jewels of legend: she was born here, or wasn’t and is actually from Yemen. She was a Jewish princess, or worshipped the sun as part of a Pagan religion that was subsumed by the curious yet beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the fourth century C.E. under King Ezana. She built a palace, had a bathing pool, grew wheat, brushed her hair with obsidian combs, or perhaps was a common regional myth like King Prester John, or was later used to bolster monarchical claims in the 10th century C.E. No one can really say with absolute certainty; if you ever attempt to make a factual proclamation, there will be eleven people standing in the doorway, jumping up and down in a fit of rage, waving their OWN scholarly work above their heads, and shouting at you something along the lines of, “NO NO NO NO NO! YOU’RE WRONG! NOW JUST STAND THERE IN YOUR WRONGNESS AND BE WRONG!!”

My camera was broken on that day, so please enjoy this random image of the stelae fields that I found on Google.

What we DO know, more or less, is this: there are over 220 ancient pillars, or stelae, some of which are over 100 feet tall, erected without any modern machinery. Axum was a center of trade and commerce, with every new grave seeming to be full of amphorae/coinage/etc from Turkey, Greece, and beyond. 226 kings held coronations here, countless foreign dignitaries sheltered or given rest, and the area has been home to Jewish settlers, Christians, and Muslims for more than a millennium and a half. It possesses the only known translation (a Rosetta Stone of sorts) between Greek, Ge’ez, and Sabean, the last of which hasn’t been spoken in over two millennia. The Templars were here, seeking the Grail, and also apparently were graffiti-loving jerks because they carved their insignia into virtually every surface they could reach. There are many who believe the mythical Ark of the Covenant resides in a church here, although it can only be viewed by one sacred monk, elected by his hermetic peers.

Ark of the Covenant: respectful artist’s rendering.

My only quibble is that while the town appears to be gearing up for tourism prime time, with its shiny new airport, plentiful clean hotels, and UNESCO heritage registrations, it clearly is not quite there yet. There is virtually no signage at any of the historical sites; a guide book would help, but without an actual guide (there are plenty to hire, of course) I can only imagine you’d be left with a vague sense of the grandeur absent the incredible historical context – the latter of which was my favorite part. The few places I DID see signs, they were generally in Amharic. This is an excellent language, and worth preserving, of course. But to attract the kind of international appeal this place to richly deserves, I imagine English, French, and/or Chinese wouldn’t go amiss.

My assumption is that everyone just hires registered guides, which is fine. They can be had from $10-75, depending on what you’re interested in (accompany you to every site? Provide transport? Lunch? Hotel pick-up? Private service? Inclusion of the innumerable “site fees”?) Still, never being entirely sure what you’re looking at or walking towards can create some awkward moments, such as when my guide had to near-bodily yank me away from the gateway to the Monastery of the Covenant. Women, being the inherent lusty temptresses we are, are not only banned from the church, sanctum, and monastic out buildings, but from the entire compound itself. (We are reduced to standing on a stool and peeking over a stone wall to see anything.) I didn’t know that last bit, and narrowly avoided an International Awkwardness Incident on par with the time I tried to read a map upside-down and very nearly blundered into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem before the nice men in army fatigues carrying very large guns caught up with me.

Anyway, it’s an easy, beautiful flight of about an hour out of Addis. Do it. DOOOO IIIIIIT. You won’t regret it.

2) Ethiopian National Museum – Ok, so, the Smithsonian it ain’t. Often dusty and curiously organized, with cursory or non-existent exhibit explanations, you end up oo-ing and aaah-ing at throne rooms and paintings without quite understanding fully why the thing you’re staring at is meaningful. (Read up on Ethiopian history first, if you want to get the most out of it.) But the exhibit on human evolution in Africa, culminating with an up-close-and-personal encounter with world-famous human ancestor and anthropological treasure Lucy is worth the price of admission on its own. I totally geeked out, as you can see below. Also fantastic, and a little better planned/explained in several languages, is the Ethnographic Museum on the campus of Addis Ababa University.

The poster at the beginning of the exhibit reads, “Hi, I’m Lucy!” I thought it would be rude not to introduce myself in return. NB: I feel the need to point out that my hair isn’t oily, it’s wet – this was a very rainy day. I’m an RPCV now. I bathe like a normal person again. Usually.

Introduction to the small but worthwhile Lucy Room.

Probably the biggest celebrity I’ve met since that one time I shook hands with US President Barack Obama, then found myself unable to speak to him in a coherent sentence.

There is also a rather nifty prehistoric Ethiopian wildlife exhibit, complete with preserved skeletons and re-creations in the form of enormous oil paintings. I don’t remember what this is precisely – either some sort of antelope, or a monstrous hellspawn only recently banished to the remotest caves of the Simien Mountains – but its be-horned skull and impenetrable gaze will haunt my nightmares forever.

For the less scientifically inclined, the museum held plenty of other attractions, such as staring thoughtfully at paintings in an appropriately solemn and intellectual manner.

If you’re not yet museum-ed out and/or your interests trend towards the slightly macabre, the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial and Museum also offers an incredibly moving account of the “Red Terror” period of political violence in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, during which up to 500,000 Ethiopians – including over 1,000 children under the age of 13 – were slaughtered under Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On a more serious note, the Red Terror Memorial Museum is a sleek and sombre place – perhaps the best museum in Addis, aesthetically speaking, but it DOES take being in a certain mood to attend.

Hall of Martyrs: the names and photographs of only a few of the youth murdered under the Derg. In addition to the usual tyrannical violence of forced public confessions, torture, nighttime disapperances, and extra-judicial killings, Derg killings were often characterized by a rather unique requirement: the family was generally unable to claim the body of their executed loved one until they’d paid the government back for the bullets.

This is the only photograph from this section I’ll post, but the exhibit bears mentioning. I have been in many massacre memorials, from Yad Vashem in Israel to the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda, but this is the only one I’ve seen with an *indoor mass grave,* complete with remains, transplanted into the heart of the city to give families a place to lay wreathes and sign mourning books. I say again: this is a place you need a little mental preparation to attend, but it’s worthwhile.

Anyway, moving on, let’s step together back into the sunlight; I’ll now bring you my third Ethiopia recommendation …

3) DRINK. ALL. THE COFFEE. – Legend has it that the first coffee plants were discovered and domesticated here in Ethiopia. (For a charming pictoral history, I direct you to The Oatmeal.) There is some scholarly debate on this topic; then again, isn’t there always? Regardless of whether or not Ethiopia invented coffee, it certainly perfected it. They’ve also adopted a rather charming “café culture”: you can’t swing a bag of gravel without shattering the window of some tiny but delicious coffee place. My traveling companions and I stopped as often as we dared before our eyeballs started independently vibrating, and we still covered probably 0.0001% of all the places in Addis alone.

My choice recommendation is a place called Tomoca, which is near the Piazza district. This is not a Starbucks, where you put your feet up, plug in your laptop, and spend 11 hours downloading pirated copies of Japanese game shows while sipping your Venti triple-shot half-caff soy no whip extra sprinkles chicken fat ripple spice chai dirty latte. The clientele is composed of almost exclusively locals, who lean against the elevated countertops (there are no chairs or tables) while they chug their daily brew and possibly skim the headlines of a shared newspaper. Your options are simple: Hard pastry? Y/N. Coffee? Black/with milk (“machiatto”). It’s all served in clear plastic vessels not much larger than a shot glass. Add sugar if you like, but know that the quality of the coffee is so exquisite, it doesn’t NEED to be drowned in Amaretto Vanilla Swirl syrup to be heavenly.

Best coffee in Addis

They roast their own beans here daily.

Measuring my life out in coffee spoons …

I couldn’t mention anything remotely gastronomical without saying that Ethiopian food, in general, is also to die for. Pictured above is
kitfo, or minced beef – traditionally served raw, drenched in super spicy ghee [clarified butter], and on sour flatbread called injira. A side of cottage-cheese-like curd stuff helps balance the heat. It is amazingly delicious.

Feeling enchanted? Or not quite yet? Suggested reading: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, by Nega Mezlekia, for an autobiographical account of living during the upheaval of the end of Haile Selassie and the reign of the Derg. The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, by Gus Caseley-Hayford, who enthusiastically seeks out the more mystical aspects of Ethiopia’s history. Those are certainly not the be-all-end-all of Ethiopia-related literature, but it ought to be enough to pique your interest.

Tomorrow, onward to Kigali, and a reunion with a dear friend.

I’m retracing my steps; my village, to Gede, to Mombasa, to Loitokitok, to Nairobi, and from there to Jomo Kenyatta, pass through customs, mount the steps of an airplane … a video cassette playing in reverse. (Remember those? Video cassettes? Be kind, please rewind? No?)

The gate to my host family’s little compound, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanaro.

Mama’s sitting room

Lunch: a stew of
matoke (local plantains) and tomatoes, with half an avocado as garnish. All picked fresh that morning from the shamba [farm/plot].

I spent the weekend with my host family, who greeted me with laughter and bone-crushing hugs and inside jokes and TWO (!!!!) huge chickens slaughtered in my honor. My first evening, I was sitting on my host mother’s eye-bleedingly busy couch – a narrow cushioned bench with a coverlet of burnished gold, patterned in blue roses and red fruit, that manages to be stately rather than tacky in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp – when I discovered I couldn’t breathe. The air was stuck in my lungs. My chest was an immovable mass. All I could do was stare mindlessly ahead and robotically pat the cat sharpening itself on my doughy lap. One thought: the end.

I’ve written about the curious cognitive-emotional experience of returning to the Dusty Training Town of olde, as well as the general fog of ennui that has shrouded my general packing and departure process as it begins to sink in that “Oh, right, this adventure is ending.” But it never felt 110% real. It felt odd, certainly, and a little sad, but I never expected to completely connect my preparations with the fact that I’m about to be gone, probably forever (for some peoples), until I landed in Addis on Friday night.

I was wrong. I walked into my host family’s cold, quiet compound, took my usual seat in the cooking hut, gazed at my host mama through a haze of woodsmoke, and boom. Hit me like a brick to the face: it’s over.

It’s over, and is irreplicable, irreplaceable.

It gets quite cold up in the hills, so it pays to have a designated lap-warming device, even for someone (like me) who doesn’t like cats.

Mama making tea

Meat is considered a luxury here, so the fact that we had it TWICE in as many days made me feel really special and appreciated.

Consider this the “before” picture, if you will.

The ferocious family guard dogs, which spend three days courageously defending the village from the fringe tassels of my
kikoi wrap.

Moo time two – we have twice as many cows as we did the last time I was in Loitokitok

The family
choo [pit latrine] – ok, there are plenty of things I definitely WON’T miss.

Instead of slapping a knife in my hand and pointing me at a pile of tomatoes as she would have two years ago, my host mama shooed me out with strict instructions to rest until dinner. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at the wall, reconstructing what it had been: my map there, a decorative leso gifted to me before I left here, my three pairs of shoes lined up at the bottom, next to my jerry cans of drinking water and a stack of Swahili language manuals. But it’s not my room now, and my stuff is gone. A goat bleated outside my window, two generations removed from the ones I once feared I had accidentally poisoned by leaving my laundry water uncovered while I went to the choo. My phone buzzed until it fell off the stool by the bed; not my best friend texting me to meet in a cornfield equidistant from our houses so we could get samosas during a weekend break from training, but instead an office staffer reminding me he hasn’t seen my draft Description of Completed Service yet. My host sister called out to me in Kiswahili, and I answer without thinking, instead of tripping over the words and obsessing over grammar.

It’s over, and I’ve come so, so far in ways uncountable.

Helluva ride, you know?

Mt. Kibo, peeking through the trees

Mt. Kilimanjaro, as viewed from my host family’s corn field.

My host sister Periwan and I

My host mama and I

Mombasa skyline at dusk. Left: a glittering new skyscraper. Right: A comparatively old minaret from one of Mombasa’s many centers of worship.

The Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Understandably so – in the past year, it has been the site of several acts of terrorism linked to al-Shabab, and the US Embassy recently issued a evacuation order for all non-essential personnel (including American tourists). At this time, our handful of volunteers living in Mombasa and its suburbs have been withdrawn, and travel to Mombasa is limited to necessary pass-through transit or medical emergencies.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this breaks my heart.

I understand their reasoning, but I am loathe for “Mombasa” to enter the general American (non-traveler) lexicon inextricably linked to “violence” or “terrorists.”

The intricately carved arching doorways are a staple of antique Muslim building facades up and down Africa’s East Coast.

Don’t misread me: Mombasa, like virtually any large city in the developing world, is not a town to be taken lightly. It struggles with poverty and sanitation issues, some crime (more in terms of systemic corruption than petty violence, but the latter is there, too), and all the chaos that generally accompanies a city being a major world trading port. However. I realize this may be a tall order, but if you can look past the major dangers like grenade attacks and minor inconveniences like traffic jams and a constant olfactory undertone of hot garbage (don’t worry, you get used to it quickly), you will find something incredibly beautiful.

This is a city that has kept its dignity through numerous periods of domestic and foreign rule, to this day possessing a (controversially) independent spirit. Though a majority Muslim city, it is home to numerous cultures and ethnicities living and working together. Mosques and Hindu temples share narrow streets, each lending its own decorative flair to the city. You can be in an electronic megamart one minute, step outside, walk a few meters, and dive into a spice market centuries old. Top 40 Hits blast from innumerable matatus, competing for space in the soundscape with dozens of mosques echoing out the call to prayer, which serves as punctuation for life’s daily rhythms.

A cart selling
madafu, or unripened coconut.

Step 1: Lop the top of the coconut off with a machete. Step 2: Insert straw. Step 3: Enjoy a naturally refreshing and nutritious treat that was cool here literally DECADES before it became a trendy hipster drink in the US.

Graffiti from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an illegal political organization that seeks to address longstanding financial and social grievances against the centralized government by advocating total secession and self rule. Their rallying cry, “Pwani Si Kenya” (“Coast is not Kenya”), can be found painted on an ever-increasing number of government buildings.

A Somali shopkeeper sits amongst her wares – dresses, headscarves, and fabrics in every imaginable hue – in the Old Town section of Mombasa.

Forget the hyper-stylized curio boutiques and “Masaai Markets” of the well-trod tourist paths. You will find no better shopping anywhere than in the shaded, narrow (and inexplicably, perpetually wet) labyrinth of alleys and stalls in deepest heart of the Old City. Then all of a sudden, you emerge into blinding sunlight, and find yourself facing Fort Jesus.

Interior: Fort Jesus

Paintings lined up along an elevated walkway in Fort Jesus.

Gateway to the indoor vegetable/spice market between Biashara Street and Old Town.

Inside the vegetable/spice market.

A shopkeeper explains the uses of different spices, from saffron and nutmeg to tamarind and crushed baobob seeds.

Damascus Shwarma – or “Shwarma Truck” to PCVs – is where the magic happens. “Magic” is not an exaggeration. Ask anyone.

Shwarma dinner: before.

Shwarma dinner: after.

I am sad that on my farewell tour of Kenya, making my way to Nairobi, I had through Mombasa, hurriedly, with my head down; a single night followed by an early-morning departure. I will be back. I don’t know when, but I am drawn to this place. Asante sana Mombasa, Mombasa moyangu.

Street stall vendors closing up shop in the early evening.

I’m not into fashion. I don’t follow “rag trade” gossip. I have a somewhat fantastic collection of shoes in America, but if I rammed it all down the choo [pit latrine] tomorrow, I could probably replace everything from Target for less than $150 total. I lack both the sartorial acumen that would prevent me from wearing a black skirt with a navy sweater and the couture fashionista panache that would allow me to pull it off anyway. I can’t pose worth a damn. I don’t even particularly like being photographed.

But I *do* love bold East African fabrics, and as I strove to be both comfortable and culturally appropriate, I managed to accumulate a wardrobe full of awesome. So much, in fact, it’s been tricky to figure out what can come home with me.

After I finish Peace Corps, I’m taking a rather lengthy trip on my way back to the States – roughly 7 weeks and 14 countries’ worth – so my packing is necessarily limited. I’ll have a backpack with me, and so far my inclusion list for that is “toothbrush, comb, Kindle, five days of clean clothes, passports.” A PC friend who’s returning much earlier than I generously offered to carry a bag of sentimental stuff and gifts for me, but even with a whole wheelie-duffel at my disposal, it made for some difficult choices. For all my shrewd toughness, I’m a little more sentimental than I ought to be sometimes. Even if I *don’t* form an emotional attachment to every kanga I throw on over pajama bottoms so I’m decent enough to walk half a kilometer to the duka and buy cooking oil, or every kikoi wound hastily around my hips so I can step out of the house to toss kitchen scraps to my neighbor’s free-roaming ducks … oi. There are flowing long gowns with bright patterns in the Swahili style, snug mermaid skirts and fluffy-sleeved blouses based on Giriama patterns, and at least 5 “fusion” outfits in which my fundi [tailor] and I worked together to take a garment from a Target catalog (or similar American source) and make it appropriate for Kenya. I feel ridiculous in some of them, even now, but each is infused with memories.

The dress below is one of the last things my fundi, Dama, sewed for me. (I’ve already inflicted my “sense” of “style” on my fine Facebook friends, so I may as well post it here now.) I like it so much that I didn’t pack it up in my “Send Home” bag, but am instead bringing it with me on my adventure across the world. The skirt is a modest “midi length” (high calf) and the scandal of bare shoulders/back created by the halter design can be readily neutralized by any item from my embarrassingly large collection of scarves/shawls/wraps. Earrings: brass spirals. Shoes: black braided leather. Necklace: Many strands of tiny beads. In other words … all traditional accessories. The fabric of the dress is from Mombasa, and the style, well … the internet. But I get cultural integration points for the rest, maybe?

I will wear this – and the other stuff – in America, and give approximately zero rats’ asses about the stares I’ll get (I already get intensely stared at all day every day for merely Existing While White, so what’s the difference?) I like them. I’ll never be the most fashionable, Vogue Magazine-pinup-ish lady on the block. But at least this time, I will have an interesting excuse.

(FFS we aren’t even all looking in the same direction.)

Khadija, Rehema, and I tried to take a picture together during tea break. Khadija looks fine, I’ve got a case of the crazy eyes going on, and Rehema, well, I don’t even know what she’s doing. I’d count down from three and someone would lean out of the shot to reach for a cookie or we’d all descend into inexplicable giggles and be captured with our eyes squinting shut, our mouths open in laughter. Out of at least ten attempts, this is the best we got (all three of us are in the frame with our eyes open! yay!) before the camera was wrested away from us and everyone else got a turn snapping shots of something – teacups, patients, someone’s henna, a super close-up of the photographer’s nostrils.

It was eleven kinds of ridiculous.

But a good day, all told.

“We laugh and laugh, and nothing can ever be sad, no one can be lost, or dead, or far away: right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection, or steal the joy of this perfect moment.”

― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

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Yours truly