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Archive for the tag “travel”

here’s why | blyde river canyon, south africa

blyde 3There are places I’ve traveled that I wish I could do over. Have a do-over. Can’t we all be granted a few of those? Mostly, that’s everywhere and everything I’ve seen, with few exceptions – like the time everything I had was stolen in Ko Phi Phi or when I threw up for two straight hours on a small fishing boat headed to snorkel with whale sharks in Mozambique (both are wildly embarrassing. Moving on…). But there are some places that with age, developed interests and whatnot, I desperately wish I could transport myself back in an instant and experience it through my eyes now, as the person I am now.

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(What am I blathering about? Does anyone ever know?)

Anyway. Today, at least, the blabbering is about the Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. It’s one of those places that I’d use one of my three genie in a bottle wishes to get a do-over. It’s pretty special.

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Blyde River is one of the largest canyons in the world. As I remember my history lesson when I visited back in the ancient year of 2008, it’s smaller only than the Grand Canyon here in the US of A and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. It’s vibrant – green with lush growth and made of red sandstone. The river runs through the cracks and crevices, spiraling around towering boulders, and the cliff edges jut out precariously – natural benches on which to take it all in. I mean, no amount of photoshopping could enhance this place or beautify it. It’s naturally awe-inspiring, breathtaking and spectacular.

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Blyde sits along the so-named Panorama Route, a stretch of land in the southeastern part of the country – near to the city of  Durban and Kruger National Park, dotted with natural landmarks. I made my way to Blyde on an overlanding trip the semester I studied abroad in South Africa. We hit the road running in Cape Town and criss-crossed the country – through Swaziland, down along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, up through Kruger National Park and back through the Panorama Route. While we pitched tents every night in the abundant campgrounds that dot the countryside, there are hostels, inns and hotels in all of the towns and major cities. To access the destinations along the Route, you need to rent a car or join an organized overlanding tour.

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The Canyon and other destinations along the Panorama Route are certainly set up for tourists. They’re well-maintained and marked. So few people go, though. You have to want to go there, plan that to be a destination. It has to be purposeful, and not many people make Blyde a purposeful visit. In my humble, modest opinion, that’s a HUGE mistake. But, I mean, less crowds and more beauty for us, right?

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In the past few years, I’ve settled into myself, into my hobbies and passions and found this endless, abounding love and deep appreciation for being in and exploring nature. If I could go back to Blyde, I’d spend the most time there I possibly could. Maybe I’d never come back! I’d hike, camp and devour it whole.

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This final picture is courtesy of GraniteNet. The other images are my own.

Here’s why you should visit Blyde River Canyon:

  1. Natural playground (hiker’s daydream)
  2. On of the three largest canyons in the world
  3. Proximity to Kruger National Park, Durban and the rest of the Panorama Route
  4. Off the beaten path
  5. Spectacular views (photographer’s daydream)

If a genie granted you three travel wishes, what would they be?

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yamato, hikari, yamaguchi, japan 山口

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Morning all (5 of you)! Jeez, I crack myself up, and it only has a little to do with the cold meds I’m hopped up on!

So today’s blog post is going to be (kinda) short and sweet (I know, thank god, right? This blabbering fool never shuts up!). I have a presentation to give at a high school in Alexandria today on life and culture and school in Japan, so I have a fast and furious half-work-day before I head out there. Two thoughts, and then some pictures:

1) I don’t have to take PTO to give this presentation, and I feel downright blessed (helps that I work in education). My boss was not only open-minded but encouraged me to get more involved with the program. Not to be lame, but, BOSS.

2) I totally forgot what my other thought was. Probably something about pizza.

I taught English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program, or, you’ve you guessed it, JET. As an alumni, I’ve wanted to give back for years, but I haven’t had the flexibility in my work schedule to do so… until now. I’m presenting today through a program called JET ambassadors, an initiative of the Japanese Ambassador to the US (Fujisaki). As an ambassador, we go to high schools in the DC/MD/VA area and tell them all the dirt on Japanese school life.

Today is my first presentation, and I am PRETTY stoked about it. I’m going to wear my karate gi (haha! no, really, I am!) and I brought a yearbook from one of my schools to show them. AND, I’m going to show them a vide of me dancing with some of my students at “sports day.” In summary, I’m about to make a FOOL OF MYSELF.

And I can’t freaking wait.

In between all that silliness, I’ll show them my home in Japan – Yamato, Hikari, Yamaguchi, Japan. (translation: rural town, nowhere, southern, Japan)

Some scenes from one of my very favorite places on the face of this earth, my home sweet home in Japan!

1919 train

hikari beach

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kentaikyo bridge

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In the kanji (chinese characters) for “Yamaguchi”

here’s why | kudaka island, okinawa

Everyone’s favorite travel phrase is “off the beaten path.” It seems everyone wants to get there, wherever that elusive place is. I’m here to help you find it! I’m starting a new series on why you should visit lesser known and talked about destinations. Check back every Tuesday for “Travel Tuesday.”

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Like most beautiful things in life, a woman created the Island of the Gods.

Kudaka Island, known in Ryukyan folklore as the “Birthplace of the Gods,” or the “Island of the Gods,” is a sacred island temple in modern-day Okinawa. Not everyone is invited to pray here, though: Kudaka is the sacred temple grounds of Okinawa’s Holy Women.

Amamikiyo, goddess of the Ryukyus – or modern-day Okinawa – descended from the heavens with the divine purpose of founding heaven on earth. For her first creation, she dreamed an island replete with the riches of nature and the delicacies of majesty. Through the essence of her being, Kudaka was born.

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Long after Amamikiyo placed her finishing touches and before her islands became the Japanese territory of Okinawa, Kudaka and the others stood as independent, autonomous lands. These lands unified under a Ryukyu King in 1429 and thrived as the Ryukyan Kingdom until 1829.

Among the most sacred of Ryukyan religious customs is the “Noro,” or high priestesses. Begun by the King’s sisters, this tradition celebrates the intellect, power and divinity of women. Noro counseled Kings during times of war and peace, acted as government liaisons and reined supreme over religious matters. Today, they oversee religious ceremonies and act as counselors on community matters.

Because of its divine creation by a “Noro” of another time, Kudaka became the royal, sacred pilgrimage of Ryukyan Kings and high priestesses. Still today, only the highest of trained holy women are allowed to enter certain areas of the island.

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I would like to say that I arrived on Kudaka aware of its historical importance. In reality, I found myself on Kudaka by accident, or karmic insistence. After four days of hiking the hills and diving the depths of Okinawa, my friend Callie and I were ready to experience Okinawa’s famed tropical paradises.

We set out indiscriminately for one of the famed Kerama islands, but our dreams were dashed as we heard, “Sold out” at every ferry counter line. Fortunately, a fellow backpacker turned comrade left us instructions before she left to a “Plan B” island in case this happened.

A haggled taxi fare and 50 minutes later, we stood at Azama Port, a pier on the edge of the Chinen Peninsula. It’s located at the southernmost part of Okinawa, the principal island of the Ryukyus. Kudaka lies 5 kilometers away, a dot on the horizon.

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After a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived on the island expecting to see travel brochures personified. Instead, everything looked a little… gray, and the overcast day was only partially to blame. We followed the rest of the excited tourists on the ferry, leading us to a bicycle rental shop. The bikes were all rented.

We meandered down a small side street – half-dirt, half-paved, lined with quaint, and often dilapidated, houses. There were overflowing trashcans and laundry on lines. Wherever we were, we weren’t traveling down the well-beaten tourist path. The road dead-ended. Puzzled, we headed back to our starting point, again.

This time, we regrouped changed our perspective: we’d find the adventure in this place and let go of our dreams of a perfect beach day. We walked to our left, down a well-worn but unmarked trail through a sun-speckled forest, our path a mixture of sand and dirt. After a short, 10 minute walk we came out into sunshine, sand, salt-water breezes and… a large breaker. The beach could be pretty, but the breaker cuts through the middle, leaving it small and unsightly.

A few sunbathers gave us directions to the best beach on the island; “Walk straight down that path over there.” Without wondering why they weren’t on this better beach, we set down ‘that path.’

We walked… and walked… and walked more. The paved road turns into a dirt trail that cuts straight through the center of the island. After passing the primary residential area, located on the western tip and housing the island’s mere 500 residents – the island turns from old, weary and worn into seemingly untouched land. We walked through silence. It’s not the kind of uncomfortable silence that makes you run towards civilization, scared, but the kind into which you want to walk. It’s completely filled by the island air – a sweet mix of sea breezes and green growth. It’s a silence you don’t know you crave until you’re in it.

I felt increasingly more alive and alert as we walked through the rich nature surrounding us. Something more then the hope of beautiful beaches compelled us forward now.

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We walked through areas of forest, into vegetable fields and straight out to open-air, grassy plains. In one of these open areas, out of nowhere, we heard a faint “moo.”. We turned to our left and looked straight into the eyes of the inhabitants of a small cattle ranch.

Our laughter ricocheted off their moos. There was something very special about this scene. Set off from the trail by 300 meters, the few cattle housed here seem not only healthy and happy but also wholly untouched by technology. Stringed ornaments of some sort hung above them.

After our trip, I researched what we’d seen. In Rykuyan religion, it’s believed that hanging Akufugeshi, religious ornaments made from conch shells, above cattle wards away evil influences and epidemics. The cattle on Kudaka aren’t only economical, they’re part of the cultural and religious heritage.

We continued until we came to a fork in the road. We chose right and came to another fork. Right again. 20 feet later, I spotted a narrow, shallow trail. We heard waves crashing. We stepped gingerly, crunching sticks and ducking under tree branches that snagged our bags and clothes.

We came out of the trees into our paradise.

It wasn’t white-sand and sun-drenched; it was a rare, dry, dead coral beach. We stood speechless, mouths agape, unbelieving. Waves crash onto boulders on one end of the beach; the rest is lined with coral. We were the only ones there.

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The coral stretches 50 feet into the ocean, until it appears to drop off to deeper seabed. I stood as lightly on the sand as possible, tiptoeing to the nearest boulder. I climbed it, and right as I leaned my head back, fixing my gaze on the ever-darkening skies, rain began to fall.

It’s not often on a vacation that you hope for dark skies and rain, but when you are standing on a secluded, coral-lined beach on top of a boulder on a sacred island, rain takes the holy and makes it majestic.

I closed my eyes, my arms outstretched as wide as they could go. The rain fell and the skies thundered. I swear I was lost in Wuthering Heights, waiting on rocky shores for Heathcliff to gallantly take me in his arms. Or something.

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We spent the remainder of the day meandering trails that offer stunning views and down paths lined with vegetation. We climbed down a makeshift rope ladder between massive boulders and sprinted our way into crashing waves. We took pictures on the highest points, watched fisherman cast their rods below us and were awed by islands dotting the sea in front of us.

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This small island has a modest, humble exterior, but as you step foot onto its rocky shores and traverse its forest-lined interior, you’ll spot remnants of an ancient kingdom’s history and a present-day peoples’ incorporation of it. It’ll stay with you. It did me.

Here’s why you should visit Kudaka Island:

  1. A naturalist’s paradise
  2. Off the beaten path
  3. History & religious folklore
  4. Coral beaches
  5. Photographer’s playground

here’s why | datong, china

Everyone’s favorite travel phrase is “off the beaten path.” It seems everyone wants to get there, wherever that elusive place is. I’m here to help you find it! I’m starting a new series on why you should visit lesser known and talked about destinations. Check back every Tuesday for “Travel Tuesday.”

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I spent 10 days in China in the spring of 2010. When building my itinerary in the months before going, I recognized that 10 days isn’t much time in one of the world’s largest land masses and shrugged it off – I wanted to see as much of it as possible. When I’m headed to a country I may visit only once, I want to be in a new place (or 2) just about every single day. The exception is sleepy towns stuck in another time and walled cities. They’re my raison d’être. On my trip to China, I did a little bit of both.

I knew that I would fly into Beijing and spend several days there. There is entirely too much to do and see in Beijing to plan for anything less than 3 days. I know that the big cities are almost always a gateway for me, not the main destination, so three days fit perfectly into my plan. After Beijing, mapping out my itinerary got tougher. I planned to fly out of Shanghai, so I needed to get there within 5-6 days. I decided my major cities would be Beijing –> Xi’An –> Shanghai. But what would I do in between, to break up the exhaustive train and bus travel?

I settled on the smaller cities and walled town, respectively, of Datong and Pingyao, that I could easily visit by train en route to Xi’An.

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Datong is situated several hundred kilometers from Beijing. It’s a dusty city in which you won’t find much English, but you will find two incredible sites that will take your breath away – and you’ll see them without the hustle and bustle of the crowds in Beijing.

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The easiest way to describe the Yúngāng Grottoes is to say they’re a network of ancient Buddhist temple carvings within caves. The experience of seeing it and being there is mindblowing, I have no other word for it. These carvings date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. There are over 252 grottoes and more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. I remember walking through the grottoes with my jaw dropped the entire time (I don’t recommend it – it’s dusty there!). They’re beautiful.

These grottoes are not only a UNESCO site but one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptures in China. And yet, nobody goes!! When I visited, there were small crowds, but they were almost exclusively Chinese. It was a cool thing to behold – seeing that many Chinese who have traveled near and far to see this site. For many, it was truly a religious experience. I stayed back and out of the way as much as possible.

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The Hanging Monestery. I sighed as I typed it. Honestly, I welled up a little, too. If you’re a traveler, I’m sure you have places – sometimes completely unexpected – that stick with you. This is one of those places for me. The Hanging Monestery, or Hanging Temple, literally hangs on the edge of a mountain cliff. It sits on stilts 250 feet above the ground. Maybe that’s an architectural feat that we could imagine today, in 2012, but this temple was built in the year 491. 491!!!! It’s truly an architectural masterpiece. Essentially, the rock has grown around the supports. The temple is the rock, and the rock is the temple.

Not only is the Temple still standing, alive and well, but you can climb a long, high series of stairs to go inside of it. The passageways are incredibly narrow, and the stairs leading to the different levels are steep. You feel like you are climbing sets of ladders, rather than stairs. The sites within it are incredible, as well. There are artifacts from earlier centuries.

I stood at the tip-top of the hanging temple, looked out among the foothills and rolling mountains, the water below, and I wanted to stay there forever, locked into a place so full of peace and strength that it has withstood nature and seen history unfold.

The easiest way to get to the Grottoes and to the Hanging Monastery is to hire a taxi from the train station. Make sure to negotiate a set amount for your trip. Keep in mind, the taxi ride alone – the bumps, potential flooding if there’s a rain storm, and personality of your driver… that’s all part of the adventure. Datong isn’t accustomed to seeing many tourists, even though it’s so close to Beijing. The locals are friendly, but many have rarely, if ever, seen a westerner, so they tend to stare. You can see the major sites in a day.

Here’s why you should visit Datong, China:

  1. Yúngāng Grottoes
  2. The Hanging Monastery
  3. It’s 6-hours from Beijing by train
  4. Off the beaten path
  5. The locals

sunsets in 12 countries

I love sunset. It’s my favorite time of day. I know it’s a general statement. Who doesn’t like sunsets, after all? But I have a special attachment to them. Every sunset sinks me into a place. It bonds me to where I am and inextricably ties me to it and makes that place my home – a place that I belong, if only for the fleeting time it takes for the sun to make its final daily descent.

The sun will always rise and always set (unless the Mayans got something right about Dec. 21…). A sunset uses the land you’re standing on as its canvas. It looks different everywhere, but it happens just the same no matter where you are.

Over the past six years, I’ve lived in multiple cities and lived in or visited 12 countries, and I’ve experienced this natural light show in every place. DC is the first time I’ve stuck in one city for longer than eight months since high school, and I’ve now been here for two and a half years. I can hardly believe it. I’ve come to know this city and call it my own – I even root for the Nationals and proudly cheer, “HAIL!” for the Redskins. But I didn’t truly feel at home here until my first sunset.

The first I remember distinctly, the one that took hold of me and claimed me, was last year during cherry blossom season. I went for a run around the tidal basin after work, and I stopped short, nearly tripping myself, catching my breath, so I could take in the sun reflecting off the tidal basin waters, cherry blossoms glistening in the fading light. The Jefferson Memorial stood out, dignified. As I took it all in, a sense of peace come over me – I was home.

I’ve had that same moment in South Africa – inside of Kruger National Park. A giraffe wandered by the side of the truck, but I was held captive in the sun’s rays, shimmering gold and hopeful between the twisted trees that came straight out of The Lion King.

I discovered my place and my footing in the soft sands of the Indian Ocean when the sun dipped below the sea, illuminating it, making it warm, inviting me in.

Mozambique is home to me, even if I may never get there again. On the unspoiled lands, with a hammock and a hut in which to rest my head, I made friends that will be with me through this lifetime, as we walked from day turning into night.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, just as high as you can go, sits my home from another time. It’ll steal your breath and heart away, like it stole mine every single time the sun took you with it on its journey over the peaks.

And here in Bloomingdale, in my new neighborhood and corner of DC, I stole a moment on a walk with Theo, to admire the artwork in the sky.

To me, home is more than a comfortable bed, apartment and solid kitchen table. Home is the place I am and the adventure that awaits.

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