How could I forget?

Yesterday, I realized how close I came to transforming back into a my past self. A self whose life revolved around my credit score and the cleanliness of my office desk. What I was like thirteen months ago.

Thirteen months ago, I embarked on a journey which took me through seven countries, three of which I called home. During this time, I witnessed poverty, death, post-colonialism, and racism. But I also experienced love, joy, friendship, and laughter, and I shared this with locals and expats, the rich and the poor, the black and the white.

It is a vast understatement and an injustice to these cultures to claim that I was “changed forever”; the truth is, I was ripped from my comfortable, western ideals and thrust into a conflicted understanding of life that I have yet to fully understand. I don’t really think I have the writing skills to explain the full range of emotions I worked through, but I suppose you understand.

I did attempt to convey these feelings to my readers, but the fact remains: how could I explain the vastness of emotion to an outsider, when the deepest of thoughts were barely understood by the active participants…namely, me.

In any case, I returned to America more wise and knowlegeable than ever before, intent on changing the world. I know, the thick layer of cliche smeared on that previous statement makes me want to cringe; I’m sure it wasn’t easier to swallow by my state-side friends and family. In their eyes, I left as a normal college graduate and returned with nothing but two bags of dirty, hole-ridden clothing and, thanks to my housing in Madagascar, a weird phobia of rats.

As the months passed, I worked tirelessly on my two African-themed novels (still a work in progress, by the way); reliving snapshots of my past over and over again. Reminding myself of why I was driven to write these books in the first place…to show what I had not been able to tell. To write, free of censorship, and imbue people with a sense of wonder for the world and a feeling of global civic duty.

Writing late into the night, I would think in French, breathe African air, and yearn to be back in Malabo, side-stepping potholes to visit with friends and lunching on plantains and chicken. But dreams don’t pay the bills, and so I accepted a fantastic job offer. A massive career boost, the wave of which carried me away from Africa and back into America. Not that America is bad. I love it here.

But I forgot. I forgot what it was like in Africa. I forgot all the lessons I had learned.

And then, I watched the movie “Biutiful”. I had no idea I was signing up for a 148 minute heart wrenching, soul beating, journey where I would see harsh reminders of the friends I left behind. The movie, which touches on everything from gay relationships to illegal African workers in Mexico, prostitution, cancer, child abuse, and alcoholism, is an expertly crafted piece of film history that is nothing short of miraculous.

A club scene filled with prostitutes and rich expats echoed of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. A police chase and subsequent story-line involving illegal Senegalese workers reminded me of the Africans hawking goods just a few minutes from my home in Paris, France. The dialogue between the main, cancer-ridden character and an inept nurse holding a possibly contaminated needle tugged at my heart and I remembered the deplorable health care in Equatorial Guinea, and my five week illness in Madagascar.

Driving home, I was strangely quiet. I couldn’t stop thinking about why I’d traveled in the first place, and moreover, why I’d ever stopped. Obviously travel takes money, money takes work, and well-paid work appeared in America; but, why did I stop remembering Africa, why did I stop reading travel blogs, or stop seeking out like-minded friends?

The answer? I think I felt a little stupid talking about something that so few people could relate to. And so I just stopped! I re-focused my energies on thoughts that other people could understand, and lost track of a part of myself which was only just developing.

So, here I am. I’m back…I’m really back. I started writing this travel blog two years ago, so that I could connect with like-minded individuals intent of traveling the world. On helping the world. On opening lines of communication between cultures to facilitate understanding and cross-cultural interest. And now…I’ve made a full 360, and I’m back for more.

I’m sorry I’ve been gone for so long. I just needed a reminder of what I was missing, and why I left in the first place.

The Backpacking Chica is BACK!

Holy Hell!

It’s been way too long since I wrote a post on here…but never fear, you haven’t been far from my mind! In my “absence” I was working behind the scenes trying to get more exposure for this site, which got me more readers…and more spammers. I do apologize if random posts of mine have weird comments attached to them; I do not endorse or condone any viagra websites or russian dating agencies at this time :-)

The last time you heard from me, I was chilling in North Florida working simultaneously on two books about my time in Africa. Nowadays…about a month later, I’m still in North Florida, but wonder upon wonders, yours truly got a J.O.B.

Yes! A job.

In fact, please imagine me putting on shades, raising my right hand, and wagging my index finger as I say, “I told you so!”

Why?

The sole reason I got hired, beating out dozens of other applicants who were definitely more qualified than myself, was because I went to Africa. Because I could confidently say: “I’ve run a blog, I know how Twitter works, and I promise I will get attention to your cause.”

It sounds stupid, but it worked! When I left on my trip fourteen months ago, there were more than enough people who swore I was doing the wrong thing: the money spent, and the time wasted could be better invested in my future.

Fourteen months later, the ONLY reason I beat out nine lawyers for my position was because, “if (you) can go backpacking around Africa by yourself, you can definitely work here!” In fact, my boss loves my whole little “crazy” story so much, he calls me the “Backpacking Chica,” whenever he’s particularly happy with my work.

In any case, my transition back to civilization is more or less complete: I’ve been able to vault my trip (and the accompanying work and blogging experiences) into an awesome job, an awesome boss, a great salary, and a new career path. Even BETTER is the fact that I get to accumulate 400 overtime hours to be used as paid vacation time…per year. How much does that ROCK? What this means to you, blogosphere and universe, will get more travel stories and no pesky advertisements on my site!

In addition, I’m finished with the first draft of my first book! I spend about six hours each weekend working on it, so while progress has slowed, my resolve definitely hasn’t! I am actually hoping to gather up the courage to post a few pages on here in a few weeks…just to see what you guys think!

Finally, I want to thank all of you for your great comments and uplifting support on my twitter and facebook. There are now more than 900 of you guys tracking my blog’s movements, and, without you the transition back to American life would have been much harder. While I have become more jaded, and I’m sad that the Paris portion of my trip wasn’t the disney wonderland I’d dreamed it would be, I am happy that I grew as a person, and could honestly not ask for anything more in life right now.

Cheers (and thank eff for American beer selections),

Backpacking Chica

Gay in Africa: Where is the closet and who is in it?

Last night I listened to an awesome techno version of one of my all-time favorite songs; the Amelie soundtrack…and I watched a very attractive transvestite dance along to it as well. Leaning against the bar, I was so happy to see a small, but enthusiastic crowd cheering and dancing along in this organized gay pride event. These girls were hot; I’m ashamed to say that they had better fashion sense than me!

As a side note, I will take this moment to throw out there that I was very proud of my outfit last night: this super cute jumpsuit thing, AMAZING heels that are really my work shoes…but needed to be showed off, and a pair of bright blue earrings. Before you judge me for wearing a jumpsuit, you should know that I was complimented on it by one of the more fashionable event participants. Awesome? I think so.

Anyway, somewhere after a quick salsa number and before a tear-jerker Celine Dion rendition, I fished an ant out of my caipirinha (only the second one in my whole life!), and thought about how long it’s been since I’ve seen anything resembling a gay, lesbian, or transgendered person.

In Equatorial Guinea, I was surprised to find out that being gay is not even a choice that people can make. In their culture (or at least I how I perceived their culture to be), it is literally unfathomable that someone would be gay; you’re either straight…or a monk. Questioning my EG peeps, not one person could name a gay friend. Nor could they remember the last time they had even heard of anything gay or lesbian related. One of my friends even remarked that he couldn’t tell me how many gay people there were in EG, because he didn’t know “what a gay person looked like”.

This attitude sort of pervades so many aspects of EG culture:

1)      You will sometimes see men holding hands; when you are in conversation with someone, holding their hand is a way to keep their attention (or so it was explained to me). Of course this isn’t considered gay; I don’t think it would even cross their minds that this contact is considered “gay” in the United States.

2)      Lesbianism is not considered attractive to many Equatoguinean men (or so they told me!). I believe this is very different from the United States; in EG it is almost viewed as being unnatural and simply unnecessary.

3)      Having children is very important to a lot of people in EG. Every person I met could not understand why I, personally, do not necessarily want to have kids. Upon hearing that I wouldn’t mind remaining childless, one of my friends got quite excited and said, “but what does your father think about that?”. I came to realize that there were many different cultural, societal, and social factors influencing people towards having children. If a culture views childbearing and rearing as an important goal of adulthood, I think it follows that it the culture might also be less open to gay and lesbian relationships.

4)      Being affectionate in public is taboo to begin with; gay or straight, you don’t see people touching or kissing in EG. Even if a person were gay, you would really have no way of knowing they are; I’m sure this doesn’t help unite the underground gay and lesbian community…if there is such a thing.

Here in Madagascar being homosexual is actually a lifestyle option (at least in Diego, which is the fifth largest city on the island), albeit not a popular one. That being said, my roommates, who have been here for several months, were flabbergasted when I told them about last night’s alternative talent show. In a city where gay pride stickers are unthinkable, it just seems so out of place to have an organized get-together.

I have to say, it was good for the soul to be a spectator to last night’s event. Sometimes it’s easy to get disheartened by the lack of open-mindedness or freedom both at home and abroad; seeing people proudly and openly celebrating who they are reminds me that progress is being made in communities worldwide.

And if nothing else, I at least felt like I was super stylin’ last night :-)

The shoes.

I went shopping in Africa for a cocktail dress and shoes. Ten stores later I found them. The dress came easy, the shoes came hard. Apparently African women have tiny feet because a women’s size ten was nowhere to be found. One shopkeeper literally laughed at me – that’s OK though :-)

The shoes I eventually bought actually still had a “Ross” sticker on them, which is a cheap outlet store in Florida. I guess that the shopkeeper got them very cheap (for $19.95, in fact!) and I paid…way more than that. Such is life.

So, as promised in previous blog-post, I’m posting pics of the buys. For your viewing pleasure, I’ve uploaded them here.

Thanks to a water shortage in the city, my hotel room became the showering place for a family that I became very close with. One such night, the kiddies passed the time playing dress up with my new clothes.

The shoes…and some hot models! :-)

Calvin Klein Dress: $100.

Shoes: Way too much money (my little secret…smart women never report real prices!).

Dressing up for the first time in four months in clothes that do not smell perpetually like a camping bonfire and that haven’t been washed on rocks and in hotel sinks: Priceless.

The dress. :-)

Reality: Life as a Woman.

The last few days have been akin to a roller coaster ride. I recently had my first negative experience being a solo, female traveler…which has taken some getting used to and more than a few beers. Thanks to the wonderful friends I have here, I’ve been able to talk about the incident and feel much better; you know who you are, and I am thankful! For more information on this event, as well as my thoughts on personal safety during my travels, check out an article I wrote for the Naples Daily News. Rest assured I’m going forward with my trip plans….I just love Africa too much to leave!

Aside from that event, I’ve been working on a very exciting project, which will hopefully be ready to “reveal” next week! Stand by for more information :-)

 Finally, I would like to say that I continue to have amazing experiences everyday. Had a tarantula in my room two nights ago. A tarantula! Thankfully some friends helped me take care of it; unfortunately my conservation instinct flies out of the window when something with eight hairy legs is hiding in my bathroom. I also got to visit the city’s orphanage today – once again, I am made aware of how lucky I am! Truly.

Pictures coming soon…in four days I’ll be in Germany and will be catching up on work there :-)

Loving life, growing as a person, and eating way too much food…in Africa.

With Love,

-Yours Truly

Exploring the Island: The Siopi River

As most of you should know by now, I spent just under three months in the rainforest of Bioko Island working at a field assistant for the BBPP. One of the perks of the job is that we worked in virtually unexplored areas; we hiked into areas that even the locals don´t even frequent. Being able to explore untouched beaches, rivers, and waterfalls became part of everyday life. Even on the worst days, I could always tell myself that I was witnessing nature in a way that only a handful of people had ever seen.

A particularly memorable exploration was when we decided to take a hike up our bathing river (called the Siopi River by our local guides) to see what surprises awaited us at the end. Clambering over slippery rocks and under fallen trees, we slowly made our way upstream. We were so rewarded; the dense vegetation opened up to allow a three-tiered cascade to rush down into a beautiful, deep pool of clear, blue water. The water pressure from the cascade was so strong that it was like swimming in one of those endless pools…except way more awesome.


Hiking to the cascades involved a few interesting maneuvers…like balancing along a log.

Hanging out on the top of the cascades.

Climbing up the cascade was so much fun. There was so much cold water hitting my face that I just shut my eyes, felt for the best handhold, and pulled myself up, rock by rock. Clambering up the rock face was definitely fun…but more even more awesome than that was the jump down.

And yes, I totally scream like a girl.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAokbRGLLSo&hl=en&fs=1]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dvx3QvBWoyo&hl=en&fs=1]

A day in the life…

Just a heads up about a new article I just wrote for the Naples Daily News. At the moment I am traveling around Africa and loving it!

Just got my hair braided yesterday…my friends here joke that I’m becoming a true African. It’s amazing to be here, relaxing in good company, learning the local language, and recharging before my next job. I think it’s fantastic how little kids have become the best way for me to learn the local language. They’re not afraid to talk to me and don’t really care if I make absolutely no sense.

I’d also like to note that it is super difficult to go running with my hair now…three bags of fake hair braided onto my scalp can do that!

Hope all is well in your parts of the world! Shout out to the people who are reading this in Iceland…I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that it is nice and warm here.

The new, braided look.

 

The cute girl who is now a budding photographer. I taught her how to use my camera.

The final results of my photography lesson.

 

:-)

How to leave a rocky, wave-filled, bay on the southern beaches of Bioko Island.

Step number 1: Set up a signal fire.

Step 2: Sleep on the beach until the boat gets here.

Step 3: Frantically flag down the boat with any available materials…ie: neon yellow rain jacket.

Step 4: Desperately try to get an overloaded boat out over the breaking waves and safely into the open ocean.

Step 5: Leaving the bay. Note the fact that the boat was filled with water, the huge waves, and the fact that I sound reasonably scared.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw8xVi09rHE&hl=en&fs=1]

Night time, rainforest style.

Nights were a really weird time in the forest; we didn’t have electricity so we would do everything by firelight or by headlamp light beam. It’s strange to describe the feeling of being confined to such a small area because of a lack of power, although I came to prefer having a headlamp on me…even when I got back to ‘civilization’. I think, as with everything about my trip, pictures say much more than anything I could ever describe (I am, after all, just an amateur blogger). That being said, I’ve put together some pictures that hopefully convey would the typical night was at Camp Drew & Crew.

Dinner was usually started before dark, but more often than not, we finished the final preparations using headlamp light.

On the days when our porters were with us in camp, they prepared the food while we took care of other camp business.

Dinner time!

Reppin´the headlamp.

Doing the nightly foot check. I wrote an article for the Naples Daily News about this whole can of worms.

Twice a week we turned on the satellite phone. We would take turns sitting by the phone – it was our only contact with the outside world.

Books became the ultimate entertainment…no facebook or myspace here!

Hot drink time was probably my favorite time of the day after bathing. There is nothing as delicious as a hot beverage at the end of a long day. I preferred hot milk (powdered milk, some sugar, and some cacao powder), while the two guys preferred coffee, and Polly was all for a fully chocolaty experience.


Hello from South Africa :-)

Hello people of the blogosphere!

Just an update on how my life is going. I got to South Africa a few days ago and have settled in nicely at the research outpost on the Loskop Dam Reserve, where I’m working as an assistant for a study on the local vervet monkey population.

Living on the reserve is pretty freakin’ cool, if I say so myself. As researchers, we get to visit off-limits areas of the reserve, which includes hiking off the beaten path (well, there are beaten paths…well-trodden animal paths) and driving on service roads. The whole area looks amazingly beautiful; red, rolling hills sporadically dotted with shrubs and trees.

Driving down the road we see so much game; giraffes, zebra, antelopes, baboons, monkeys, wildebeests, and a lot of other animals I don’t even know yet. Hiking through the undergrowth is amazing; especially when I realized that I was standing in the middle of a dried out Rhino mud pit. If you must know, I totally freaked out when I saw my first giraffe and my first (and only) zebra – not too embarrassing though…I’m working on keeping my cool in these situations J

I also “met” Zazu from the Lion King; well, I at least have a resident bird exactly like him that hangs out by my cabin. I’m still waiting to see the crocs, hippos, and white rhino; keep your fingers crossed for me!

The people here are also extremely friendly. Right off the bat I noticed that the apartheid isn’t as forgotten as we Americans would tend to think; social integration and black empowerment are popular topics of conversation and opinions are like a certain body part – everyone has one. This is not necessarily negative, just completely unexpected. I have to admit that I was naïve enough to actually think that the end of the apartheid in 1994 actually meant that it must have ended in the people’s minds; one more lesson I’ve learned.

It’s been difficult basically jumping from one job to the next. I do miss my friends and family back home, not to mention the people I befriended while I was in the Bioko rainforest. Hardest of all is the continuing saga of finding internet and getting phone contact. In Equatorial Guinea I basically ran out of time to get a cell phone; here I finally have a cell phone but the charger to it doesn’t work, so I’m still without reliable a phone…three weeks after I first started to get one organized. As for the internet, it’s capped here; meaning, we have wireless, but as a camp, we only get a certain amount per month before we don’t get anymore. So I find myself rushing online, checking one or two things, and then getting off as fast as I can. Sorry…no more picture uploads of my trip until I leave this part of the job. It’s funny how even though I was without internet for three months, and now only have the bare minimum, that I can still get lots of information out to you guys!

Anyway, I’m not feeling homesick; just missing the act of having long conversations with people back home. It is strange to not have the traditional network of people around me. I am still not used to completely relying on myself to keep my spirit high. Whenever I feel at all down, I just think about how awesome my opportunities are, and that gets me through the moodiness.

Alrighty – that’s it for now! More stuff coming your way soon J