I finished exams just a few hours ago. Now that my mind is free to wander outside of the scope of constitutional and corporate law, I find myself reflecting on the past year. 2017 has been a difficult year for a few reasons, but I can’t help but think back on the last 12 months with gratitude and wonder. I am so grateful for the beautiful souls I’ve encountered on this year’s journeys, and I have been reminded of an important lesson–family isn’t limited to relation by blood or marriage, but it’s who we choose and who choose us back.
Like 2016, 2017 took me all around the world (on a strict travel budget, of course)–to Costa Rica and Mexico in January, to Israel and Palestine over spring break, and to Egypt and Uganda–a country I now consider a second home because of the amazing people I came to know there–during the summer. I am so thankful for another year of adventure, and for those of you who have followed along with the blog and sent your encouragement and kind words along the way!
I witnessed for myself the history, pain, and complexity of modern Israel. I visited Jesus’s empty tomb in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, walked the Via Dolorosa, and offered a prayer at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I also visited Yad Vashem and met a Holocaust survivor, and recommitted myself to working to make sure human beings never “other” each other again. I also learned first-hand about the injustice in the West Bank while meeting with entrepreneurs and activists during a visit to Ramallah, and I know that I have a responsibility to share what the experience taught me. (Israel/Palestine)
I recommitted myself to seeking justice for the oppressed and learned an incredible amount from some of the strongest human rights defenders in the world while working as an intern with Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda. (Lira, Uganda)
This weekend, I had a chance to visit one of Uganda’s most famous natural attractions—Murchison Falls. (In keeping with the waterfall theme and because I’ve slacked on the blog this summer, I will also write about a trip I took about a month ago to Sipi Falls, a lesser-known but beautiful hidden gem in Uganda’s eastern region).
As my summer has been so busy with work (which has been super rewarding, and I love my officemates so much!) and the weekends have been filling up quickly, I was sad to think I wouldn’t have time to visit Murchison Falls at all before leaving Uganda. Imagine my joy when Diana suggested I take a day off to get one more good traveling weekend in! 🙂 Because Murchison is best visited over a minimum period of 2 nights and 3 days, I knew then that I could make it. My friend Daan put me in touch with his friend Nathan, who was taking a group there the following weekend. It was a done deal!
Friday morning, I met a group of 7 other travelers—4 Ugandan, 2 Lithuanian, and 1 Italian (I didn’t get asked about Trump once, thanks goodness! How refreshing!)—and we set off northwest for Murchison.
Our accommodations were in a small village just outside the park known as Pakwach in the West Nile region of Uganda. Pakwach is much more rural and less developed than many other parts of Uganda I’ve visited. The local villagers were extremely friendly, and even welcomed us to visit their homes and farms.
So, the guesthouse…each night at midnight, the electricity cut off, my water stopped running twice, and I was eaten by mosquitoes (fingers crossed I don’t get malaria!). I want to get all of the negative out of the way to go on to say that the food was AMAZING. Everything was so fresh. Home-cooked fresh fish from the Nile, chapatti, rice, beans, some type of greens called doh doh (not able to confirm this spelling on Google, lol), fresh fruits, and fresh cabbage (my favorite)! Breakfast in the mornings were fresh eggs, chapatti, and/or toast.
At 6:30am Saturday morning, we set out for the park entrance, eager to see some animals!!
Like in Queen Elizabeth, I saw a leopard up close…we were even able to see him walk down the branch from the tree!
We also saw a few pairs of lions in the far distance twice. You could only see them through binoculars. Our guide informed us it was mating season, and these pairs had been spotted together over the course of the last week. * Cue “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from the Lion King*
One amazing thing that Murchison Falls had that Queen Elizabeth did not have was giraffes! There were so many, and they would come very close to our truck.
I also saw many elephants, buffalo, kob, bushbuck, and waterbuck. We even saw a hyena!
To me, animals will always be the highlight of any safari. But the main waterfall at Murchison certainly gives the animals some competition! After lunch, we drove up to the top of the falls—where the entire force of the Nile river rushes through a rock crevice only 6 meters wide and crashes 53 meters below, to continue its flow north through South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt.
Murchison Falls is the location of 2 historic events I was totally geeking out about before visiting.
It’s the scene of the filming of the 1951 movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Bogart won his only Oscar (Best Actor) for his performance in this movie. My mom raised me on the old, classic movies, and The African Queen was one of my favorites of them all! We had it on VHS tape, until the day my black lab puppy Scout decided to chew it up when I was about 8 years old. So the family joke was that Scout’s favorite movie was The African Queen too! I thought of him (that hungry puppy grew to be about 125 pounds and passed away a few years ago…I grew up with him!) as I stood at the falls and took in all the scenery…I know he would have loved it. RIP Scout!
Murchison Falls is also the location of Ernest Hemingway’s double plane crash in 1954. Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, were in a charter plane exploring the terrain and were flying low over the falls, when the wing caught something from below and sent the plane crashing. No one was hurt, fortunately. Then, the rescue plane that picked them up the next day crashed too! Again, no one was hurt, fortunately. Talk about bad luck though! (Or maybe it was karma…if you’re as interested in Hemingway’s personal life as I am, I recommend this fictional account based on actual events.)
#FAKENEWS….They didn’t die!!
Last month, I took off on a solo hiking day trip to Sipi Falls, located in Kapchorwa district, northeast of the major town of Mbale near the border of Kenya. My faithful boda guy Calvin picked me up at 5:45am and drove me to meet my driver for the day, Moses. Moses and I then continued on for the 5 hour drive to Sipi, and we had a lot of time to talk in the car. Moses even taught me some Lugisu, the native language of the Bugisu tribe of Mbale (like Luganda is the language of the Buganda people of central Uganda, which I’ve been learning a bit). Lugisu sounds similar to Luganda, because both languages are derived from the Bantu language group.
After passing the giant Mount Elgon, which is believed to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa, we arrived in Sipi, where I met up with my guide Juma. Juma is a native of Sipi and knew literally everything about the falls and the surrounding area. The hike to and around each of the falls took about 4 hours total. The hike took us across farmland and through local villages. The fees paid to hike the falls go back to the people who live on the land and open it up to visitors. The lush green of the land was striking.
There was a pool between the first and second waterfall, where local women were washing their clothes. Sometimes visitors will swim here, but I didn’t want to disturb these ladies. I sat with them for a while before thanking them for letting me visit and continuing on.
The second waterfall had a cave!
The third waterfall was by far the most difficult to access. It was very hilly, and the day had gotten hot by now. Plus, something about the soil was super slippery, and I kept falling! Juma gave me some hilarious advice—“walk with less energy!” Those of you who know me know I’m a fairly energetic person, so I tried to put a bit more chill in my step, and it worked! I didn’t fall anymore. I was blown away by the fact that, as I struggled in my sneakers with a small backpack, local women would pass by barefoot with loads of freshly harvested crops loaded on top of their heads, effortlessly scaling the slopes. Talk about staying humble!
Sipi is also well-known for its coffee, and Juma offered me a tour of the coffee farms, but I was so exhausted by this point that I opted to head back to Kampala. I was so hungry because I hadn’t eaten all day!! Moses and I stopped in Mbale and bought the most delicious fresh Rolex (not the watch, but a Ugandan delicacy made out of egg and chapatti) and fried cassava. I bought dinner for both of us for the equivalent of just 1 US dollar (~3,600 shillings).
I got back home around 10, took a hot shower, and crashed into bed after such a full day.
Yesterday, I visited one of the New Seven Wonders of the World–Machu Picchu. Discovered as recently as 1911, Machu Picchu is an Incan city built six centuries ago. Before coming to Peru, this was the one site I had heard the most of, and I was almost desensitized by the amount of pictures and information I had seen about Machu Picchu on TV and social media. However, I realized upon my arrival that nothing could have properly prepared me for this visit, and no pictures or words can ever really do this place justice.
When we were planning our trip, Sarah and I decided to do one day in Machu Picchu and forego the week-long trek along the Inca Trail that many visitors elect to do (I want to do this someday though!), so that we could have more time to visit Rainbow Mountain and Colca Canyon. At 5:30am, we woke up and walked down to the train station in Ollantaytambo to catch the Inca Rail for an hour and a half ride to Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes is the last town before the Machu Picchu archaeological park, and it reminds me of a Peruvian version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–very quaint, but touristy and overpriced! Once here, we purchased a bus ticket to Machu Picchu and hopped aboard the first available.
Once we were there, we immediately walked to the first viewing point!
We had booked our visit early enough to secure a ticket to hike two of the smaller mountains in the ancient city–Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu. While 2,500 visitors are allowed each day at Machu Picchu, only 200 are allowed on these peaks each day! After soaking in that first initial view, we made our way to the gated entrance for these two mountains. I got separated from Sarah and Rachele, so I went ahead and started the treks on my own. I first scaled Huaynapicchu, the smaller mountain. It only took 20-30 minutes to climb, and the most exciting part was a small cliff where I had to pull myself up by rope! Once on top, the views of Waynapicchu and Machu Picchu were beautiful. I also made friends with a German, a Canadian, and an Italian at the top.
I then made my way toward Waynapicchu, the big mountain. I was actually very surprised I was allowed to climb it, as it looked quite treacherous. Surely enough, I found the trail and began to follow it up, scaling some very steep and narrow steps along the way. It took about an hour to climb up, and I was so famished at the top (I had only had a small package of wafers for breakfast!) I instantly ate some Peanut M&M’s (my favorite!) and chugged some water before soaking in the view. I also climbed around on some rocks at the very top, and at one point I was literally holding on to a rock to keep from sliding down (not off the mountain, but just a few feet!) so that I could get a good picture angle for a sweet married couple I met. All the trekkers who made it really bonded at the top of Waynapicchu!
After making my way back down (and almost dropping my iPhone off the side of the mountain…a very close call!), I met up with Sarah and Rachele for lunch. They wanted to leave early to head back to Aguas Calientes, but I chose to stay a bit longer at Machu Picchu. After re-entering the park, I soon found myself on the trail to Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. This was my favorite part of my time at Machu Picchu! This was the original gate into the sacred city from the outside world, and the trek up from the city was about an hour up. The views of the city below were absolutely amazing. I also met a nice Russian along the way who was about to quit the trek…but I convinced him to keep going!
On my way down from Intipunku, I stopped by a grassy area where people were laying in the grass and chilling, and I decided to do the same. The view from here was also amazing. I found myself reflecting a lot on the last few months, the last few years, and what is ahead of me for the next few years. In my daily life, I often have a hard time slowing down to take time to pray and meditate, but I found myself doing such as I laid in the grass with the views of Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu, the mountains I had scaled earlier in the day, before me. Finally, it was time to leave. I caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes and met up with Sarah and Rachele. We then took the Inca Rail together back to Ollantaytambo. I was not feeling well at all, so I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Even though I felt sick physically, I had such a full heart from the amazing visit earlier in the day. Strangely enough, I felt a real spiritual connection at Machu Picchu, and I can’t wait to visit again at some point in my lifetime (God willing!).
Hi, I’m Gracie, a 28 year old New Yorker, native Alabamian, law student, and lover of travel. I’m excited to share my journey with you.
I started this blog to encourage and inspire people to travel, no matter their age, background, or prior travel experience. I left the US for the first time just a few years ago, and recently I’ve had the opportunity to travel across 5 different continents–just me and and my trusty backpack! I hope the information and stories I share will help readers travel with confidence and purpose. I also look forward to using this blog to share my thoughts about current events within the US and around the world in an effort to promote dialogue and understanding across the political spectrum.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath