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a southern yankee abroad

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Africa

Misadventures at Lake Mburo

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As much as I love Kampala, it didn’t take long before I was ready to get outside the city and get my nature connection going. In just two nights of camping at Lake Mburo last weekend, I managed to accidentally get lost in the bush for an hour with 3 children from a local village, pass out from dehydration, and have the best time with a group of new friends from Kampala—it was truly a “wild” time!

 

My special connection to camping in Africa started a year and a half ago when I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa during Christmas 2015. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, and was starting to feel like I didn’t want to work in finance forever either after 3 years. So, instead of going home to Mississippi/Alabama for the holidays as usual, I decided to go on a mind-clearing, soul-searching trip by myself to…Africa!! Granted, I had never camped before in my life, and had never been anywhere besides Europe and Mexico at this point, but I figured, why not!?

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This trip truly changed my life, and I credit my 10 days in the wild with giving me the perspective I needed to set some decisions in motion and fully live out this “quarter-life crisis” thing. I also made some amazing friends who continue to be very dear to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I found part of myself sleeping under the stars and amongst the wildlife in southern Africa that Christmas.

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So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Mburo in western Uganda and camp for three days last weekend with some new friends I had made over the last few weeks, my unequivocal answer was yes! The Mihingo Lodge was hosting its annual marathon/half-marathon/10k/5k/mountain bike race to raise funds for conservation, so my new American friend Carissa and I immediately started looking up tent and sleeping bag rentals and transportation to the park. We were soon joined in the planning by our new British friends Nick and Shaun, as well as Carissa’s school friend Charles (whom I had also met in the airport the night I arrived!).

 

After almost getting ripped off by a guy from Facebook who wanted to charge us a 30 USD “delivery fee” for renting his camping equipment, Carissa and I decided just to buy our own equipment from the local store Game (it’s a Ugandan chain store owned by Wal-Mart, and it sells just about everything). Friday was Hero’s Day in Uganda, and as all offices were closed, we were able to set off that morning with a ride we had found (also on Facebook…there’s a “Kampala Ex Pats” page). I rode to our meeting point loaded down on the boda with my tent, 2 sleeping bags, and backpack…it was quite the sight.

 

We arrived at Lake Mburo that afternoon after crossing the Equator (!), and Carissa and I pitched our tent near our friends.

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Camp Masters!

The delicious camp meals were served from a “kitchen” tent, and we all enjoyed some pasta and drinks before turning in. The bathroom situation was pretty much non-existent—the toilets were holes it the ground surrounded on 3 sides by a screen, and the “showers” were buckets hanging from trees that never seemed to have water. However, this was all part of the fun!! There is freedom in being dirty!

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The next morning, it was time to race. Even though I used to run all the time and finished a marathon just before my last Africa trip, I barely do anymore, so I signed up for the 5k with Shaun, Charles, and tons of children from local villages (lol). The rest of our camping group decided to do the 10k with the rest of the adults, so I was at least happy to have some fellow underachievers in Shaun and Charles. 🙂

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Who’s up for a 5k fun run?!

At around 8am, we set off. Shaun and Charles quickly left me in the dust (lol), but I had a new running buddy—this little kid from a local village. He didn’t speak English (they speak luyankole in this part of western Uganda) so he couldn’t tell me his name, so I called him “Little Dude.” After running along beside me for the first half-mile, Little Dude dropped back to within 5-10 feet of me for the rest of the race.

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I should have known something was up when it was just me and Little Dude (LD) on the trail. In one of my worst blonde moments ever to date, I thought the blue arrows were for the 5k and the green arrows were for the half-marathon. In reality, it was reversed. As I followed the blue arrows, Little Dude followed me, and before too long it was just me, him, some zebras, and the occasional mountain biker.

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LOST?!

This didn’t feel right. “Are we going the right way?” I asked LD. He just grinned at me blankly. After 40 minutes, I knew we should have finished the 5k, and we were officially lost. Ironically, LD and I came across two more local children who didn’t speak English and had also gotten lost on the trail. They too started walking along with me, pointing at the zebras as we passed. (I had given up running at this point!)

 

“You’ve got an entourage, don’t you?!” said an older British man, as he whizzed past me and my 3 new friends on his mountain bike.

 

“Haha, I guess so. Actually, we’re lost. Can you tell me how to get back to the campsite?” I asked.

 

“Sorry, don’t know!” he said, as he left us in the dust.

 

“What a jerk!” I thought. We were at the 1-hour mark, and while I wasn’t worried yet, I knew the kids would need water soon. LD was lagging behind, so I offered him a piggyback ride.

 

Fortunately, a nice British lady soon passed us on her mountain bike, offered us water and told us the general direction back to camp. We were about 8 kms away at this point! “I’ll send help for you guys from up ahead,” she said as she continued along her trail ride. As we started walking back toward the general direction of camp, a lodge worker soon approached us in a Land Rover…we were rescued!! We shared some good laughs about it in the truck on the way back to camp.

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The 2 other local kids Little Dude and I came across…at least we can laugh about this now, right?!

 

LD and I ended up crossing the finish line at about 1 hour and 30 minutes…my worst 5k time ever!

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Looking and feeling rough

 

After relaxing for a bit back at the camp, Shaun, Charles, my new British friend Becky, and I decided to ride around and see more of the park in Becky’s vehicle. After loading up and getting about 10 yards down the dirt road, we had a flat. Shaun and I watched as Charles and Becky expertly started putting the spare on. All of the sudden, my head started spinning and my vision blurred.

 

“I’ve never felt like this before,” I said, as I leaned against Shaun’s shoulder. While this sounds quite romantic, that’s the last thing it was. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground with Becky holding my hand, Shaun holding a cold bottle of water against my neck, and Charles looking into my eyes (he’s a trained paramedic!) I felt like I was waking up from a nap, but apparently I had fainted. I have never passed out before in my life, and it was a weird sensation!! I drank lots of water and some electrolyte tablets for the rest of the day, and felt completely fine afterward. Moral of the story—don’t forget to drink water after getting lost in the African bush for an hour!

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Shaun and I re-enacting the earlier events of the day at Lake Mburo…again, at least we can laugh about it now, right?!

After these near-death experiences, the rest of the weekend was drama-free (thank goodness). We took a boat safari around Lake Mburo later that afternoon, and spotted several hippo, birds, eagles, and warthogs!

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Hard to see, but there are some hippos and an eagle in this picture!

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Back at the camp, we enjoyed a second beautiful sunset before pulling out our flashlights and playing games before going to sleep.

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The next morning, we had one last campsite meal, and I enjoyed the “bush coffee” they brew in a huge pot over the  campfire while taking down our tent and packing up. Becky was kind enough to give Carissa and me a ride back to the big city of Kampala (“the big K” as I’ve started to call it), as our previous ride had already left a day early.

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We crossed the Equator again!

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You’d think after all the craziness, I’d give up camping for a while…but I am actually going again this coming weekend in Jinja! All I need to do is pay more attention to where I am going, and drink more water. ❤

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Some zebras and crested cranes–the national bird of Uganda!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lyrical Justice

On Tuesday, I got to go on my first road trip across Uganda—north to the town of Lira. It was a rollercoaster 36 hours, in more ways than one.

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My reason for travel was professional. My organization was representing a journalist in the town of Lira—we will call him “J”—who had been arrested one fateful evening just before the presidential election last year during the airing of his radio political talk show, along with four other politicians. J and his co-defendants had been kept on trial for 16 straight months without the state producing a single witness for the “crime” of alleged defacement of political posters. The irony is that J could not have been involved with the defacement as he was on the air during the time the act occurred. Nevertheless, he was relentlessly prosecuted as part of an effort to chill political dissent and freedom of expression. Our client made 12 consecutive appearances before the court over this period, and each time the court would adjourn and require his presence at the next hearing, presumably until the state could produce witnesses.

 

Our client’s rights were being violated under both Ugandan law (Article 28(1) of the Constitution) and international customary law (the right to a fair and speedy trial). So, my organization sent my colleague K, an attorney on staff who focuses on litigation, and me north to Lira to argue for the dismissal of the charges.

 

K and I set off on our journey from the central bus station of Kampala. We had two options for bus travel—the GaaGaa Coach and the Baby Coach. Both were public buses without air conditioner that cost 20,000 shillings one way (about $5), yet the GaaGaa coach was known to be slightly more comfortable and organized. Of course, we missed the GaaGaa coach by 5 minutes, so we booked our tickets on the infamous Baby Coach.

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We weren’t the only ones who wanted to ride GaaGaa

After sitting on the bus for about 1.5 hours as they changed tires and continued to load more customers in, we started down the road out of Kampala north toward Lira. K and I were pretty cramped on the Baby Coach, as the tiny “baby-sized” seats were covered in plastic and super sticky. But once the bus started rolling, the fresh air made the circumstances more manageable. In accordance with what I am coming to realize of “Africa time,” the 4 hour drive took about 7 hours.

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A typical roadside stop for snacks…we made about 20 of these

One thing we were not lacking on this road trip was snacks! My favorite part of the trips to and from Lira was when the bus would pull over and local vendors would swarm up to our windows, selling their goods. Sometimes, if they spotted me, I would hear “Muzungu! Muzungu!” from down below. (Muzungu is Luganda for white person haha). At almost every stop, I tried to buy something new…I enjoyed the gonja (roasted banana-like fruit), g-nuts, and cassava (a roasted root that tastes like mashed potato). I didn’t try the meat on a stick (still vegetarian these days!), roasted corn, jackfruit (because I don’t like it), or Rolex (chapatti—a Ugandan bread—with egg wrapped inside), but they were selling all of these things as well. They also sold live chickens to any interested buyers!

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Want to buy a live chicken from your bus window? No problem! 

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We also passed over the Nile and saw several baboons about halfway along the journey, and spotted many obusisira, or traditional hut-style houses along the way.

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Crossing the Nile River near Murchison Falls

 

Once we finally arrived in Lira, our mission came into sharper focus. We first met with J and gave him our assessment of the facts and the applicable law. “I pray to God this is over with tomorrow and I can be a free man again,” he explained. It was clear the case had taken a toll on J physically and emotionally, as he seemed very tired and worn down.

 

Given the political nature of our case, our client warned us that he thought we were being “tracked” (this was later confirmed from sources both in Lira and Kampala), and he advised a certain secure hotel for K and me to spend the night. He led us to a small gated hotel just off a dirt road on the edge of town. While this was supposed to be the “safe” hotel, I instantly felt sketched out by this place. Trusting my feminine instincts, I discreetly asked K if we could keep looking, and he agreed.

 

We then asked if we could stay at the M Hotel, which looked much newer, cleaner, and more secure, but this immediately alarmed our clients. “This place is not safe and there have been many kidnappings here,” they stated. However, after visiting, I for some reason felt way safer in this place than the last place—it was much more well-lit and the staff seemed trustworthy. After finding his cousin was on security detail that night, our client finally acquiesced to allowing us to spend the night here, and allowed me to settle into my room only after thoroughly checking it for wiretaps and working locks. Even though my room “checked out,” I slept with the chair under the doorknob just in case as I was thoroughly freaked out. And it takes a lot to freak me out! Also, it made me feel better knowing K was just 2 doors down. I was so relieved to see we both survived the night to attend the trial the next day!

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The next morning, we arrived at the courthouse and met our client J, his brother, and his four co-defendants. Even though we were charged with defending J, K agreed to represent the other four at the request of the magistrate, as he preferred to keep the matters grouped together. Because K is a legal champ, he agreed. (Some judges are called “magistrate” here). We then proceeded to wait outside for 2.5 hours with all other defendants before we were called by the attendant into the chambers.

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Before our hearing, full of nerves and anticipation

We spent the time chatting about the case and life in general, and it passed surprisingly fast. I was particularly taken aback by the arrival of the 30 or so male inmates from the jail down the road. They arrived on foot, escorted by prison guards and handcuffed to one another. They then knelt on their knees before the 20 ft x 20 ft cinderblock “holding cell” for about 30 minutes, before they were allowed in.

 

Once inside the cell, the sound of voices drifted beyond the cinderblocks, harmonizing together to form a song in a language I couldn’t understand, but understood all the same.

 

“They sing to give themselves hope,” K explained to me.

 

Finally, it was our time to go before the magistrate. As we entered the chambers, the magistrate immediately looked to me. There is no doubt I stood out, as I was the only muzungu around and also one of very few women present on the premises.

 

“Are you with CNN or BBC?” he asked me. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or serious. I later found out he was serious.

 

“Neither, your honor,” I replied. “I am a law student at New York University, and am an intern with K this summer.”

 

“I see,” he replied. “You will see… we apply the law here in Uganda.”

 

“Yes, your honor,” I replied. But secretly, I wasn’t sure yet.

 

K opened with a clear and concise argument—this case had dragged on for 16 months, and our clients’ rights to a fair and speedy trial had been violated. This right is not only given in the Ugandan constitution and in international law, but is a bedrock of democracy. K argued for dismissal of the charges under the Magistrates Court Act Cap 16, Section 119(1) (want of prosecution). After a short response from the prosecution, the magistrate issued his ruling in favor of the defendants. Tears sprang into my eyes as I looked over at J and saw his eyes filling with tears as well. He is now free of the burden of being prosecuted for no reason, and can return to his family in a nearby village to rest and recover from the trauma.

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K and me giving J a high five! 

After some congratulatory high-fives and hugs, K and I jumped on some boda bodas to pick up our bags from the hotel, and then to board the bus back to Kampala. We were lucky to book the GaaGaa coach this time around! We had lunch with one defendant at the Divine Mercy café—matoke, dried fish, and rice—before boarding the bus for the 4 hour (lol…7 hour) journey back to Kampala.

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As the bus passed back through the beautiful rural countryside, I felt truly grateful that justice had been delivered for J and the four other men that day. However, I couldn’t help dwelling on the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” and feeling like a part of J will never be healed after being taken, beaten, imprisoned, and relentlessly prosecuted for expressing his political beliefs and performing his job as a journalist. I think the irony is that the more a government tries to suppress the freedom of expression, the louder those voices will rise from behind whatever temporary walls are places around them—much like the prisoners in the holding cell at the Lira court, singing their songs of pain and hope, reality and dreams of a better world.

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Uganda Be Kidding Me: Week #1 in Kampala

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Greetings from Kampala! I’ve only been here a week, but it’s starting to feel like home in a lot of ways.

Yes, I am in Uganda, and yes I am on an adventure, but this summer already feels quite different because I am living and working in one place instead of moving around constantly like a nomad with ADHD. Don’t get me wrong—I am definitely going on some weekend excursions (stay tuned!) but I am actually enjoying the feeling of settling in halfway across the world. Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite things about Kampala so far…some which I expected, and others which have taken me by surprise.

  1. Boda bodas

Every day, I ride a boda boda to and from work. (Mom, please don’t freak out!) Rain or shine. It’s the best feeling to be weaving through traffic with the wind in my hair. Beats the NYC subway (for now at least!) Seeing as my office is off a dirt road (yes, it’s in Kampala city limits), it can get a little muddy. It’s like mud-riding. As my boss D put it, “You Americans play in mud for fun, but we don’t have a choice here.” Makes you think, right?


I’ve also had some pretty interesting conversations with my boda drivers. A few people have recommended I get one driver and stick with him for the whole summer, but I’m just not ready for that level of commitment. Lol.

  1. Matoke and other foods

Matoke is similar to mashed potatoes but made from a banana-like plant that grows on trees. It is one of the main food staples of Uganda! I love it…which is a good thing because it is served everyday for lunch in my office.

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Some other Ugandan foods I like? Posho (like mashed potatoes that taste like grits because it’s made out of corn meal), nakati (a bitter and salty dark green), and ground nut stew (literally mashed up nuts made into stew).

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So delicious
Also, the garden behind our office has an avocado tree, so we get to eat fresh avocadoes every day for lunch!

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The garden behind my office…I’m obsessed ❤
My office is pretty cool for the fact that we have 2 cooks on staff who prepare a home-cooked meal everyday for lunch, using fresh ingredients from the garden, and serve us at our desk!

As much as I am loving Ugandan food everyday for lunch, I have a confession…we literally are served so much food, I cannot come close to finishing it everyday. I then get in trouble with D, the head of our legal department, who thinks I can do a better job of cleaning my plate! I guess she doesn’t realize if I did that, I would fall asleep at my desk from a food coma. All things considered, this is not a bad problem to have, and I am really enjoying the food!

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Also, drinks are super cheap here…this huge water + coke zero cost 4,000UGX (just over $1)…
Speaking of food, my roommate and I ordered pizza my first night in town. Yes, you can order pizza in Uganda. It was delivered on the back of a boda boda….

  1. My neighborhood bodega

Like any good New Yorker, I appreciate a good 24/7 neighborhood bodega. Imagine my surprise when I found one just around the corner from my house! It’s not open 24/7, but it’s open most nights until 11pm, and they sell potato chips, wine, and other important items. It kind of looks like a jail, and they hand you your items through the iron bars…you don’t even go inside. I love this place!

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My friend Dre outside the Ntinda All-In-One shop (aka my bodega!)
  1. So many people here have asked me if I’m British…having grown up in (very) rural Alabama, I am enjoying being mistaken for a British person so much! I have no idea why I’ve been asked this so many times, but I guess it means the Southern accent is nowhere to be found anymore. RIP 😦
  1. and when they find out I’m American, they ask about Trump. You can imagine how this goes…
  1. My apartment

I love my apartment here! I found it over Airbnb, and it’s very comfortable and already feels like home for the summer. The front yard is a little crazy…there’s a huge gate and a small house with a 24/7 security guard. It took a while to get used to this, but I’d say I am now. My favorite part of the house is the back patio ❤

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My bed has a giant mosquito net, which i’ve never used!
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My favorite place at home!
  1. My work

I will have a lot more to say about this as the summer goes on, but for now, I am working at a human rights organization here in Kampala focused on defending the freedom of expression, the free press, and journalists’ rights. I felt so welcomed by the team from day #1! Everyone in my office is a native Ugandan, except me of course haha.

I am working with the legal department, which consists of D, K, and I. D is a mom of 4 with a law degree, and she is going back for a master’s degree this fall. I have mad respect for this lady! She is also hilarious, even when she is getting on to me for not finishing my food at lunch. My desk is next to hers, which is so nice because we have so much to talk about over the course of the day. K is another attorney on staff, and I got to go to court with him on Wednesday (more about this in a later post). K has been great at explaining the ropes to me, and I get to travel with him to northern Uganda next week for a trial! I is probably my best friend at work so far…he is exactly 2 weeks older than me and just finished his first year of law school, like me. He knows so much about American politics…more than a lot of Americans I know!! We’ve had some interesting discussions.

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A sample of some of the issues we address daily
The 4 of us in the Legal Department share an office with four cubicles, and the days go by so quickly as we have a lot of work to do and stories to share. One thing I’ve enjoyed in particularly is comparing cases from law school with the team. Uganda has a common law system based on British law, just like the USA, seeing as both countries are former colonies of Great Britain (geez England, you thought you owned everything there for a while!) As a result, Ugandan law schools study many of the same cases we study in US law school that date back…I was particularly amused to learn we both studied the Raffles case (yes, I was laughing about the Peerless with my Ugandan officemates today! Nerdiness knows no nationality!) I’ve also enjoyed discussing the similarities and differences in Ugandan and American civil procedure and the structure of the court systems with the team…literally the only time I’ve ever enjoyed talking about Civ Pro lol.

The organization is much bigger than the legal department, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all of my many other colleagues who work on other aspects of human rights work. There is too much to share about the work I am doing and the things I am learning in this post, and I want to write about these things thoughtfully in a future post. Just know it’s really been a great experience so far!

  1. New friends

#nonewfriends? Nah…I’ve made so many great, new friends here in Kampala! It all starts with my roommate J from Canada…we both randomly found this apartment on our own, but it was like fate. J has been looking out for me since day 0. Before my arrival, she even stocked up on water and groceries for me, and let me in the apartment at 4:30am when I arrived!

J also introduced me to a ton of other expats, and it was so fun to explore the Kampala night life with all of them last weekend. J also introduced me to N and J– a Canadian couple who permanently lives in Uganda now. They are both artists and some of the kindest and most interesting people…they made dinner for me and J and even taught us how to light a Ugandan stove! (It looks more dangerous than it is, I think…maybe J and I will be brave enough to try it on our own soon?! Until then I’m gonna keep eating popcorn for dinner…) I also made some friends on my flight over (who knew you could meet such interesting people at a Uganda airport at 3am?!) Not surprisingly, I’ve only met a few other Americans, but a ton of other Canadians, Brits, and Egyptians! 🙂

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  1. Wifi

Right?! I am surprised too. I freaking love the wifi here…it’s actually better than what I have in NYC. I am using Vodaphone, and it’s been so great so far. I carry this little box with me everywhere I go, meaning I have wifi wherever I am. Considering I wasn’t sure if I’d have wifi at all (lol), this is fantastic!

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This little box goes with me wherever I go.
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One funny thing about Uganda is everyone goes by their last name first…so my vodaphone calls me “Smith”!
 

10. The weather

It’s not nearly as hot here as I imagined it would be, and it even gets a little chilly at night. There’s also a nice rain about every other day. I can’t believe I am living on the Equator and the weather is so pleasant!

 

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This is just a preview of my first week in my new home! I know I will have so much more to share as the weeks pass…for now, Osiibye otya nno! (Good evening in Lugandan).

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A view of my neighborhood ❤
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Beautiful Kampala Sunset from N and J’s balcony
PS- For those who don’t know, Chelsea Handler came up with “Uganda Be Kidding Me.” I love her. Credit where credit is due…

Heart Like a Feather: 10 Hours in Cairo

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Spending the day exploring Cairo was the perfect beginning to my summer abroad in Uganda. When shopping for flights back in March, I was so excited to see the cheapest flight option from NYC would also give me a 10 hour layover in Cairo before I boarded a connection to Entebbe. Just enough time to explore the pyramids! I soon learned Cairo has so much more to offer…

I have to admit I was a bit nervous about exploring Cairo on my own, based on what I had seen and heard in the media about being a solo female in the city. Fortunately, my friend Richard from the UK whom I met last summer in Berlin, had the perfect solution for me. A few years back, he had explored Cairo with a fantastic guide named Hossam, and he connected me with Hossam over Facebook and WhatsApp. I arrived in Egypt with my (come to find out, unfounded) anxiety at bay and ready to explore! (TLDR summary): I felt very safe my entire time in Cairo, despite what you may see and hear in the media. I would encourage anyone I know to travel to Egypt!

Hossam and his driver met me at the airport once I arrived at 11am Cairo time. I had the whole row to myself on the 10.5 hour flight from NYC, so I was able to get some good sleep while catching up on some recent movies—Hidden Figures (I totally cried!) and Masterminds (I cried from laughing so much!) After purchasing my visa (25 USD) and making my way through security, I found Hossam just past the arrivals section, and we loaded up and began the 1.5 hour drive to Giza.

First impressions of Egypt? The traffic is insane! Even more insane than NYC x1000. Most main roads do not even have painted lanes, and it doesn’t make a difference on the ones that do as most drivers straddle the lines with their cars as they drive. Even though Cairo traffic was a true free-for-all, there were surprisingly no accidents, as all the drivers are super vigilant even as they drive crazily.

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The roads…No lanes or signs, and sometimes unpaved. Also, people walk directly into traffic without looking! Reminds me of NYC ❤

Pyramids on Pyramids

As we made our way toward Giza, Hossam drew diagrams for me as he explained the significance of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian history. Giza is located on the west bank of the Nile, while the main city of Cairo is on the east bank. This is for a reason—the ancient Egyptians believed that the side of the Nile where you lived represented your current life, while the opposite bank represented the afterlife. Therefore, the pharaohs constructed their burial sites on the west side to represent the “crossing over” that occurred after death.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Pyramid in person—it was breathtaking. According to Hossam, the pyramids change each time you view them, and are never the same twice. Do they have a mystical power? I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to decide.

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During the course of the visit, we walked around and took in the sites at various points. I paid 200 EGP (~11 USD) extra to climb to the burial room inside the Great Pyramid, and it was worth it. The climb is more like a 37 meter inclined crawl, and it was hot and cramped at times. It reminded me of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Once I reached the top, I found myself alone in the burial room where the body of the pharaoh Khufu was once sealed…super eerie!

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This is where Khufu was buried near the top of the Great Pyramid! The walls are made of rose granite. It was super creepy to be in here by myself!

After leaving Khufu’s Great Pyramid, we made our way toward the bank of the Nile, stopping along the way to visit the Queens’ pyramids and the burial temple of Khufu. Hossam was able to take me into a secret locked portion of the temple!

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We then drove around to take in the view of the complex from the other side of the pyramids away from the Nile bank. The Great Pyramid is accompanied by the pyramids of Khafre (Khufu’s son) and Menkaure. Out of respect, Khafre built his pyramid to be 3 meters shorter than his father’s pyramid. But poor Menkaure—his pyramid is so tiny compared to the other two! Hossam told me this was likely due to a poor economy during the time of its construction—when there was more abundance, the pyramids were bigger, and vice versa.

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Our last stop in the temple complex was a visit to the valley temple of Khufu and the Sphinx (my favorite!). Until 100 years ago, the Nile flowed just beneath the Sphinx and the valley temples. However, the river has since changed course. The purpose of the valley temples was to receive the bodies of the dead pharaohs from the “other side” in preparation for the afterlife. Each pyramid has a valley temple and a causeway leading to the burial temple, which is connected to the pyramid.

The Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion, was built to guard the pyramid complex by the pharaoh Khafre along the banks of the Nile. Like seeing the Great Pyramid, seeing the Sphinx in person for the first time was truly breathtaking…it’s like he popped out of nowhere as I scanned my eyes across the horizon, and I was definitely caught off guard!

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Me and Hossam at the Sphinx!
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Guarding the pyramids. I love how big the “paws” are!

A Heart Like a Feather

After leaving the pyramids, Hossam took me to a papyrus art gallery. I knew papyrus was used as paper, but I had no idea the spiritual significance of the plant to ancient Egyptians. The papyrus and the lotus flowers are the two sacred plants—the lotus flower represents love, and the woman gives a lotus to the man she wants to marry (yes, the women proposed to men in ancient Egypt! Holla at that feminism!) If he accepted the lotus, they were engaged. If not, then she could move on! The papyrus was also sacred because of its form (its shape represents the sun god Ra, as the head of the stalk looks like the sun’s rays shooting out), and because of its function (used to make boats and as paper).

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As a law student, the mythology of the weighing of the heart struck me in particular, and is my favorite story I am taking away from my time here. After a person dies, he goes before Osiris, the judge of the afterlife. The heart of the deceased is placed on a pair of scales and weighed against a feather, held by Maat, the goddess of justice. If the feather outweighs the heart, he had a light heart, meaning he spent his life peacefully doing good for others. However, if the heart outweighs the feather, he had a heavy heart, meaning he had lived his life in anger and not doing right by other people. I love this story and all it represents—what a great reminder to keep a light heart every day!

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I purchased this papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart. Maat, the goddess of justice, is on the left (you can see the feather on her head!), and the heart is in the jar on the right.

Khan el-Khalili, the Old Islamic Market 

We finished out our busy day with a visit to the souk (marketplace) in the Islamic district of Cairo called Khan el-Khalili. The market was full of both modern and traditional vendors, and it seemed every other building was a mosque featuring the most beautiful architecture.

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I learned that all mosques have domed shapes because of the acoustic requirements before the age of electricity and loudspeakers—the domes would amplify the call to prayer five times daily. Today, the calls to prayer are simply played over loudspeakers, but the domed shape has remained a part of Islamic tradition and culture.

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Another interesting architectural find? These window screens, called mashrabiya. As women must be covered in public, and not viewed by anyone but her husband and family, these screens allow women to look from their windows and not be viewed from the street, thus maintaining their privacy and modesty.

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Besides the beautiful architecture, my favorite part of the souk was our stop at El Feshawy, the oldest coffee shop in Khan el-Khalili. Here, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and shisha while people stopped at our table and tried to sell me trinkets, henna, and souvenirs every 5 seconds (a firm “no thank you” usually did the trick). After relaxing for a bit, we wound our way back through the market and through the gate, where our driver was waiting to take me back to the airport… 😦

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A long time ago, these iron windows were “water stations” where anyone could stop by and be served clean and fresh water for free, no questions asked.

Sadly, the very next day after my visit, a shooting attack by ISIS on a bus carrying Coptic Christians killed 29 people just outside of Cairo. I received several messages asking if I was ok—I am ok, and we should keep the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers. This terrible tragedy is a reminder that nowhere in the world is safe, but I want to reemphasize that I never felt in danger during my time in Cairo. America is not the safest place either–it has been almost a year since a shooting attack in Florida killed 50 people. The truth is we all have to stay vigilant no matter where we are in the world.

At the end of the day, I was not ready to leave Cairo! It was such a beautiful city and I feel like I developed a deeper appreciation for Egyptian heritage and culture. I hope to go back and visit sometime in the future.

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6 Ways to Show a Little Self-Love

Happy Valentine’s Day / Single’s Awareness Day, blog readers! Today is all about love, although I woke up on this cold, icy NYC morning feeling like death (or at least like I had the flu). Somehow, I managed to make it to class on time despite hitting the snooze button for an hour straight (very unlike me, as I am typically an unapologetic morning person). As the day progressed, I really didn’t think about the fact it was Valentine’s Day at all (despite the fact my sweet mom sent me roses and chocolates yesterday…thanks Mom!) img_2252

However, after I got home and curled up under my electric blanket with a mug of tea, I found myself realizing that it was, in fact, almost the end of Valentine’s Day 2017. So I decided to recognize the holiday with a little reflection on self-love.

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Shout out to my besties…y’all know who y’all are! ❤

Last year was the best year of my life in so many ways, but I feel like it was perhaps only setting me up for the year that is ahead. I am so excited to the point I am almost restless for the next few months. Below I’ve made a “list of love” to share the ways I’ve practiced self-love so far in 2017. It doesn’t matter if you’re coupled or single as a pringle—today is also a day to realize you need to love yourself before you can truly love anyone else.

1- Travel! I feel so, so lucky (more so each day) that I am able to continue my traveling this year. I’ve realized over the adventures of the last few years that travel is my first love. I feel fully alive when I am somewhere I’ve never been before. I started off 2017 with a trip home to the South (which honestly feels like visiting another country sometimes) before spending 10 days in Costa Rica. Next month, I am traveling to Israel with a group from NYU Law. We had our first meeting together last night, and I can’t wait to explore with this group next month!

Then, I will be spending 10 weeks in Uganda over the summer as a human rights fellow through law school. And, I may be doing a 10 day safari in Botswana before I start! I feel so grateful to be able to continue doing what I love in the context of my career, education, and research interests.

It’s good to have a taste for traveling alone.

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A shot from last month in beautiful Mexico City. I can’t wait to be on the road again!

2- Getting off Facebook. I made the split-second decision to deactivate my Facebook account a few weeks ago. As I sat scrolling through my Newsfeed full of political posts, I realized that I missed having control of how I received information. And as much as we try to fight it, I feel like Facebook use is correlated with desensitization, as we tend to lose sight of the fact we are interacting with people, and not a computer screen, as we type out messages and send “likes” across the void. While I feel a deep despair at the state of the nation and world right now, I realized participating in the Facebook feeding frenzy was counter-productive for me. Instead of being on full emotional blast in reaction to what’s going on, I need to sustain a slow burn for the next few years. So, I deactivated Facebook for the first time since I got it 10 years ago. For the last decade, I could never have imagined life without this service that allows me to “keep in touch” with so many people, yet I haven’t missed it once. In fact, my head feels so much clearer now. And I have had a lot more time to read and write (which is maybe a bit embarrassing to admit, as it shows how much time I was really wasting on Facebook!)

3- DailyOm. DailyOm is a website that offers online journaling classes with a variety of focuses. Because I love writing so much (if you can’t tell already!), I decided to give their strategy of “focused journaling” a try through their course entitled “Heal Yourself With Writing.” The course centers on self-discovery and empowerment by writing and remembering the past from various perspectives. The course starts off with a Native American parable about a man who says he feels he has two wolves fighting in his heart—one vengeful and angry, and the other loving and compassionate. The man admits that the wolf who wins will be the wolf that he feeds, and he chooses which one is fed.

I’ve found the approach to remembering, refocusing, and writing to be transformational, and I am just a few weeks in. Whether it’s writing, meditation, or another mechanism, I would encourage everyone to take some time for self-reflection now—especially as the world seems to spiral into chaos around us.

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The new website I have replaced Facebook with!

4- A fresh approach to law school. The first semester of law school really was a blur to me. I hate to admit this, but I feel like I just showed up and went along for the ride when I returned from traveling back in August. I don’t think I got enough out of this education I am investing so dearly in last semester. This semester, I feel not only more focused, but more knowledgeable about what I need to do to get the most out of law school. For me, that means 1-handwriting all notes (no computer!), 2- hitting the library everyday (no more going home early, chilling, and getting distracted!), and 3- briefing all my cases (I didn’t think it was worth it last semester, but I’ve changed my mind).

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A nice snowy day recently at NYU. I feel a lot more grounded and connected to school this semester, and I am happy I get to come here everyday.

5- Be careful who you prioritize. As Maya Angelou once said, “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” The corollary, I think, would be to be sure to prioritize those people who are important to you so they never have to guess if they are priorities or options. I think this applies to all levels and forms of relationships—friends, family, and dating. For some reason, acting on this lesson of prioritization has become a “priority” for me in the last few months (for lack of a better term!). Not only am I trying to be more discerning about the level of importance I give people in my mind, schedule, and heart, but I am trying to be more intentional in staying connected in certain relationships and establishing firm boundaries in others. After all, if you don’t guard your heart, who will?

6- Take a lot of walks. Those of you who know me well know I used to be adamant about running almost everyday. These days, I like to take walks around Bushwick just about every night. I use this time to think, listen to music, and call friends. There is something about forward motion that’s freeing, no matter what speed you’re going. I surprisingly don’t miss running at all, and that’s ok–there’s a time in life for everything!  I love wandering around, both in big ways (see #1) and small ways (walking around Bushwick). And, it helps me accomplish #5 (staying in touch with friends).

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A pink Bushwick sky

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! Hope you’re feeling the love, inside and out! Xoxoxo

Change the Game: The Economics of Saving the Rhino

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If there is such thing as a modern day dinosaur, the rhino comes close. It was like stepping back in time, as I watched these majestically ancient creatures move purposefully under the shade provided by the trees’ small branches. I found myself in awe of their presence. I tried not to breathe very loudly, as the rhino fixed his beady eye on me. If he wanted, the rhino could have plowed through the shade trees, easily uprooting them, before making his way to and through myself and my fellow travelers crouched low in the grass just a few yards away. However, the peaceful and friendly nature of these rhinos put me at ease, and I knew they were content to have me in their backyard, so long as I didn’t make too much noise! I fell in love with these easygoing creatures.

The issue is we are losing these animals.

One of the most magical but least expected highlights of my trip to Africa in December was the day I spent tracking the white rhinoceros near the Matopos with Ian Harmer of African Wanderer Safaris. I have always considered myself to have a respectable level of concern regarding animal and wildlife issues. However, spending a day with the rhinos of Zimbabwe made me passionate about the fight to save the rhino from extinction. I was stunned by what I learned—it is estimated two rhinos are killed each day, and poaching has grown considerably in the last 10 years. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. In 2015, 1,215 rhinos were poached. At this rate, there will be no more rhinos left in the world within the next 10 years, in the wild or in captivity.

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Snack time!

 

Why are the rhinos dying?

Rhinos across southern Africa are the target of organized poaching schemes driven by the economic forces of the illegal horn trade across Asia. Some Asian cultures believe rhino horn holds special medical power (everything from boosting male virility to curing cancer). The rhino horn can be worth up to twice its weight in gold in these markets. Poachers have advanced systems involving helicopters and infrared technology to track and kill the rhinos, often in the most inhumane ways possible. Ian shared a heartbreaking story from several months back about finding a rhino he had “grown up with” left for dead on the side of the road after the poachers had cut his face off to take his horn. In an effort to protect the rhinos in the fight against the poachers, rangers at the Matobo National Park carry machine guns and are mandated to shoot and kill suspected poachers on the spot.

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With an armed guard in the park

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that rhinos do not have to die or suffer to give up their horns. In fact, cutting a rhino horn is similar to clipping a human’s fingernails or toenails—if done correctly, the process is easy and pain-free. The staff at the Matobo National Park regularly cuts the horns of the rhinos in their park, in order to make them less of a target for poachers. This is unlike the elephant’s tusk, which is essentially a tooth instead of a fingernail. Elephants must be killed to extract the tusk.

How can we save the rhino?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has been instrumental in working to protect the rhino and eliminate illegal horn trading. CITES meets every three years and has a standing committee specifically focused on the rhino. Recently, CITES has pushed for the government of Vietnam to conduct “consumer behavior research” in an effort to develop strategies to decrease demand for rhino horn, as well as to impose stiffer penalties for those participating in the illegal market.  CITES has also mandated Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to continue their efforts to coordinate along their borders to stop poachers, as well as to implement penalties for poachers more consistently. For example, in 2013, Mozambique issued a higher number of poaching fines than ever before, yet only 3% were paid.

The challenge is finding a solution that will prevent the rhinoceros from becoming extinct. It is quite difficult to change mindsets and alter economic pressures over a given period of time, and even more so when the time is severely limited given the rate that rhinos are being poached. What if the trade of the rhino horn became legal? Until 2009, domestic trading of rhino horn was legal in South Africa. It was made illegal in 2009 as a response to the spike in poaching. What about international trade of rhino horn? CITES banned this in 1977, in an effort to protect already dwindling rhino numbers. Despite these bans, the poaching issue has become considerably worse over the last decade, and we are now facing the possible extinction of the rhino.

Since it is painless to cut the horns of rhinos (or “dehorn” them), rhinos could be farmed like cattle and dehorned regularly, thus better protecting them from poachers and generating a profit for the farmers and benefitting the local economy. Also, poachers will be de-incentivized, as a legalized trade would increase supply and lower prices. However, there is always the risk that legalizing the trade could have the opposite effect of increasing demand, in which case poachers would still have inducement to poach. Also, given the demand for rhino horn is primarily in Asia, a ban on domestic trade of rhino horn is a non-issue, as there is really no domestic market. It seems a lift on the international trade ban would be the key driver of this solution.

CITES will have their triennial meeting this September in Johannesburg, South Africa. Without doubt, there will be continued debate on what policies would be most effective for protecting the rhino. I hope the leaders at CITES realize the current strategies have been ineffective, and time is running out for the rhino unless we change the game.

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How Affordable is Traveling Abroad?

 

10338680_10206454388371024_8528537077188326176_o“Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.”

I could not agree more with this statement. Travel (along with education) is the most important investment you can make in your personal development.

But, let’s be real. Traveling is expensive. Once you decide to travel abroad, it helps to have a game plan in place to make the trip a reality. You do not have to have a trust fund or win the lottery to see the world! With some research, extra attention to spending habits, and patience, the world will be yours to see. Below are some of the tips and advice I’ve found to be helpful in the process.

Save, save, save! Once you decide upon a trip abroad as a goal, pay yourself to go. What do I mean? Take a close look at your budget (fixed costs v. discretionary spending). What can you live without? It is really as simple as deciding you can live without certain things, and setting the money you would otherwise spend aside. For example, as soon as I got back from Africa, I was so inspired to save money to travel more that I cut off my cable!

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There was no cable available in my tent in Africa, and I found out I was very happy to live without it!

Websites like Mint can even help you set savings goals for vacations, and track your contributions on a regular basis. Also, most tour companies like EF Tours and G Adventures will let you make payments on the cost of your trip starting several months in advance, instead of paying the amount in full. Once you decide to travel, treat the saving process like paying bills (except this is a fun bill that actually gives back to you!). Remember, tours are all-inclusive (sometimes even including flights to and from), so this can be helpful if you want to work with a hard figure for your savings plan.

If you’re in college, study abroad! Often, financial aid packages will cover the costs of tuition and room and board expenses for study abroad, and living in a foreign country can be equal to (if you’re careful) or less than living in the US. My one regret from college was not pursuing a study abroad opportunity. All my friends who did it says it was a life-changing experience. At least visit the travel abroad office to investigate your options. It never hurts to ask!

Be on the lookout for flight deals. Flying is not as expensive as you’d think it might be! The growth of low-cost airlines has been a boon for budget-minded travelers, especially in Europe where they’ve been around a while.

I use Kayak to search for flight deals. It is a “metasearch” engine that searches for good deals across multiple search engines, so it’s better than just using Expedia or Priceline. It also includes a lot of deals from low cost airline providers.  You are more likely to find a good deal on a flight if you can be flexible with your schedule (I recommend using the “flexible dates” function to compare prices across a range of workable departure and return dates). I also really like using Skypicker. Often, their results will show up in a Kayak search, but sometimes I like cross-checking against their website just in case (just be careful, because all Skypicker sales are final!)

For my upcoming long-term summer travel, I’ve managed to lock in my intercontinental flights (US to Asia to South America to Europe to US) for a much cheaper rate using Kayak/Skypicker than I found when searching for an around the world (“RTW”) flight ticket. However, this type of ticket may be sensible for you if you have a firm schedule for long-term travel. I highly recommend doing your research on Kayak and comparing it to RTW ticket prices you find on Airtreks.

Tip: I have no idea if it is true or if it is just me being superstitious, but I always search Kayak in “incognito mode” on Google Chrome, so as not to inflate prices on multiple searches. Maybe it is me being silly…but passing along, just in case!

Be as flexible as possible. As mentioned above, be flexible with your dates as much as you can be when searching flights by departure and return date (for example, it is often cheaper to leave on a Wednesday than a Friday). Also, be flexible with your airport of departure if you can. For example, searching a round trip ticket from Atlanta to London yields a price $910, while searching a round trip ticket from Birmingham, AL to London shows a price of $1,625…big difference!

Track “small” expenses. Something as basic as your passport will cost you $30, which is important to keep in mind as these small but critical expenses add up. Some countries will charge you for a visa to enter (anywhere from 35 USD for Zimbabwe to 80 USD for Vietnam to 135 USD for Bolivia), but many if not all European countries and some South American countries will grant US citizens a free visa for a period of time, usually less than 90 days.

Try to avoid foreign transaction fees and currency exchange rates. Keep an eye on foreign transaction fees as you book transportation and accommodation overseas in advance, as well as when you use your credit card abroad. It is best to try to open a checking account with Charles Schwab (reimburses ATM fees) or obtain a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as a Chase Sapphire or Capital One card. Bank of America charges a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase made outside of the U.S. or Mexico…ouch! Try to use ATMs instead of currency exchange kiosks once abroad, as they will charge you exorbitant rates. You can usually order currencies from your bank ahead of your departure for a much lower rate.

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Beware of foreign transaction fees and currency exchange kiosks!

Stay in hostels. This advice is especially true if you’re young and single (yeah!), but I’ve also found some family-friendly hostels in my search process. Hostels provide dorm-like conditions for the budget-minded traveler at costs as low as $8/night (this is what I am paying each night in Chiang Mai before I meet with my tour group in Bangkok). The trick is to make sure you reserve a hostel with a reputation for being clean and safe, as well as one that provides extra perks like free wifi, free breakfast, and a washing machine. I used Hostelword as well as word of mouth from friends when planning my hostel stays for this summer. Hostelworld features good, detailed reviews for each hostel. I also like their “flexible booking” system, meaning you can pay an extra $1 to receive a credit back on your deposit to use for another reservation should you cancel or change your reservation. This has proven very handy, as my plans have already fluctuated multiple times even a few months out!

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The Man in Seat 61…he’s awesome!

Research the train system. I’m actually very excited for this tip, as I have yet to master the rail system in Europe (I’ve heard it’s great though!). While I am using low-cost airlines for some travel within Europe, I will be using the train for much of my travels. I recommend crunching the numbers to see if it is more cost-effective for you to buy a Eurail pass, or just buy tickets as you go. For me, I will just be buying tickets as I go along. The point is…don’t assume a “pass” is the cheapest option! Visit The Man in Seat 61 for awesome advice regarding train travel.

Enjoy and appreciate destinations closer to home. In the meantime, enjoy your home and the surrounding area as a destination! I’ve met plenty of people on my travels who have never visited the US, so take time to appreciate what is unique about the place around you. When it comes down to it, we all live in and are from a great travel destination…so own it!

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I love being a tourist wherever I live! This shot is from Memphis, Tennessee when I lived there a few years ago.

I hope my tips have helped you realize traveling can become a reality with some planning ahead. Do you have any additional tips or questions about saving money to travel abroad?

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A riverboat on the Zambezi in Zambia, which reminded me of Memphis!

 

Johannesburg, South Africa: The Somber History of Apartheid

1404816_10206454516374224_4149021129424623718_oMy visit to South Africa last December included a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I went in with a general understanding of apartheid as a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa in the late 20th century, mostly gleaned from brief overviews in a high school history class. However, I quickly realized how much more there was to learn from this painful chapter in history. The Apartheid Museum serves as a reminder that the struggle for equality still exists, in South Africa and around the world.

Below are a few facts I learned for the first time during the visit.

-Apartheid permeated every detail of a person’s existence. Each citizen was legally classified as white, black, Indian, or “coloured,” and was required to carry an identification card denoting this. This classification affected details as small as what alcohol you were allowed to drink (black people had to drink the lower quality “Bantu beer” as mandated by the government) and as big as where you could live (3.5 million black South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods over the course of 2 decades).

-Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa early in his life, and was a victim of the discrimination that served as a precursor to the apartheid system. In 1893, Gandhi purchased a first-class ticket for a train traveling from Pretoria. A white passenger complained about sharing the car with Gandhi, and Gandhi was forcibly removed after refusing to move to third-class. Gandhi became active in fighting discrimination in South Africa, and called this incident among the most important in his political career. Gandhi continued his work in South Africa until 1914, when he returned to India as Mahatma, meaning “a great soul.”

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Gandhi as a young lawyer in Johannesburg, c. 1905

-The Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw schoolchildren, some as young as 13, come together to protest inequality in the education system. Essentially, the government led by the pro-apartheid National Party passed a law mandating all children be educated in the Afrikaans language. However, black South Africans spoke English. As Desmond Tutu said at the time, black South Africans viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor.” Can you imagine going to school and trying to learn math, history, and language in a language that was completely foreign to you, in your home country? This was exactly the problem faced by black South African students and teachers, who were now forced by law to communicate in Afrikaans only with English-speaking students. (It probably goes without mentioning, but the schools themselves were completely segregated along racial lines, and the black schools received much less funding.)

The students stood up for their right to an equal education. On June 16, 1976, 20,000 students and protesters marched in the streets and were met with violent backlash from the South African military, who used machine guns, dogs, and stoning to attack. It is estimated up to 700 protesters died during the uprising. June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, to honor the memory of these protesters.

As a former teacher of high school students, learning about the Soweto uprising shook me at my core. What are we doing in the US to fight for all students to have an excellent education? How are we empowering youth to stand up for their rights without fear of repercussion?

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Schoolchildren protest oppression in education, Soweto Youth Uprising, 1976

-The “toyi toyi” dance/military march was adopted as a symbol of protest and unity among black South Africans after the 1976 massacre. The museum had several very moving video clips of the toyi toyi used in protest. I’ve included one from You Tube below. Although this is fake footage from a movie, it can give you an idea how powerful it was to see actual video footage of this.

Toyi Toyi as protest to apartheid in South Africa

-Nelson Mandela was released as a political prisoner on February 11, 1990 after 27 years of confinement, much of it in solitary confinement. While this is a pretty widely known fact, it still blew my mind to be reminded that this happened during my lifetime (I was 8 months old and in diapers when he was released!).

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The South African flag was redesigned and adopted in 1994 to represent unity in a post-apartheid era.

-My tour included a visit to the Soweto neighborhood (a syllabic acronym for Southwest Township), where hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forced to move after being forcibly removed from their original homes during apartheid. This is separate from the visit to the Apartheid Museum, but my hotel was able to arrange both tours and provide transportation. This neighborhood features the only street in the world with the addresses of two Nobel Peace Prize winners—Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

 

My visits to the Apartheid Museum and to the Soweto neighborhood were informative, inspiring, and humbling. I highly recommend the tours if you find yourself in Johannesburg.

 

To Tour or Not to Tour: Planning the First Solo Trip

 

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“Sailing ’round the world in a dirty gondola…” – The Band

Going abroad for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, if you have no one else who can travel with you at that time, it may be the only option you have. I have traveled alone on both trips to Italy and Africa. When I left the comfort and familiarity of NYC to board the flight to Italy alone almost 2 years ago, I was practically shaking with anxiety. However, as soon as I arrived in Rome, it took almost no time to realize that living independently in NYC for nearly 1 year had more than prepared me for the streets of Italy’s most fantastic cities!

If you are traveling abroad for the first time solo, meeting with a tour group may help alleviate some nervousness. However, depending on your destination, you may be able to self-plan your trip to cut costs and fit in more of what you want to see and do without having to cooperate with a strict group schedule.

For my first trip abroad to Italy, I was scheduled to meet up with a good friend I had taught high school with in Memphis, as well as one of her friends from college. My friend had arranged for the 3 of us to travel with EF Tours, with the majority of our group being from the Memphis area. I would fly solo from NYC to Rome to meet my friend and the group there. Given my lack of experience in foreign travel, I willingly agreed to this plan…at that time, I did not know the first thing about planning a trip in Italy! However, my friend had to drop out of the trip just a few days before our departure due to family circumstances, and I found myself traveling across Italy with a group of relative strangers. I grew to enjoy the company of the group, but often found myself splitting off to see more sights at my own pace.

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Climbing the Duomo in Florence, a solo feat! Not for the claustrophobic…

There were both pros and cons to using an organized tour company for my first solo trip:

Pros:

  • I knew I had a group waiting on me in Rome and expecting my arrival. This was reassuring, just in case the unforeseen happened!
  • Pre-arranged transport and accommodations between all the major cities on our agenda (Rome, Florence, Venice) as well as some less-visited towns (Assisi, Spoleto, Bologna) proved extremely convenient.
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Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi…a beautiful and moving visit I may not have made if I were traveling completely solo, since it’s a little off the beaten path! This painting spells “peace” in every language.
  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, meaning I was able to see a different side of Italy that was less touristy. For example, dancing with these nuns we stayed with outside of Venice was definitely a highlight of the trip! They also served very good wine. You can visit their website here.

Cons:

  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, so I felt like I had less time than I desired in places like Rome and Florence.
  • The tour ran on a very strict schedule! There was little time for wandering on my own (although, I sometimes created this for myself by splitting off from the group when I knew there was something else I wanted to see or do).
  • Once I got the hang of being in a foreign country after the first few days, I realized I could have planned the entire trip on my own, cut down on costs by staying in hostels and traveling by train, and seen more of the sights I wanted to see!
  • Most of the meals were pre-arranged, which was a real bummer. Although it was included in the tour price (wine was always extra though), this did not allow me the opportunity or freedom to explore as many restaurants as I wanted. I feel like I need to go back to Italy to experience more authentic dining!

All things considered, I still booked my trip to Africa last winter through a tour company. This time, I used G Adventures, based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks DJ!). Even though I was much more comfortable with the idea of solo travel at this point, G Adventures (contracted through Indaba Explorations) provided the overland vehicle for transport, camping equipment, and meals cooked over the campfire each night, making it a sensible decision. This time around, I actually thoroughly enjoyed being in a tour group—everyone was in the 23-35 age range, we had amazing local guides (shout out to Joslin and Francois!), and there was plenty of free time (when we weren’t on an organized safari of course). More on how much I loved my Africa travel group later 🙂

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On safari with new friends in Zimbabwe

This summer, I will be using G Adventures again as I travel through Southeast Asia. However, I will be backpacking in South America with a good friend from NYC, and taking on Europe completely solo for 7 weeks (I will share more on my itinerary later)!!

Have you ever used a tour group for solo travel? If so, what was your experience like?

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