SAFARI NJEMA

words of an over-opinionated travel addict

Category: Personal

2 Things I Never Thought I’d Say

1. I’m dating a boy

2. I’ve seen Machu Picchu twice

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an open book, sometimes to the point where it’s too much. I started a blog originally just to update about my travels, but lately (in typical me fashion) it’s becoming a bit more personal. Traveling is hard in so many ways. It’s so much more than sight-seeing, cool Instagram photos, and eating strange foods. Nine times out of ten, I go to sleep at night thinking about the person I am, and the person that I want to be. Last week was no different, and resulted in quite a bit of self evaluating. 

I like women. I mean, really, really, like women. I started to come out at 14 years old and while I “dabbled” with men a few times over the years, I had never actually fallen for one or dated one in any serious sense. My last relationship was extremely serious and when it ended I felt like I was grieving her death rather than grieving over the future that I lost with her. That relationship ended within minutes of me returning back to Long Island after months of traveling. Not only did I suffer reverse culture shock, adjusting back, and the fear of not having a next step, but my entire life at home as I knew it (with her) was gone. I went through a pretty pathetic and dark period, but I’m proud (and relieved) to say that I came out of it a better person. I did not become bitter. Our years together taught me invaluable lessons and have altered me forever. I have promised myself afterwards that I would no longer sacrifice myself or turn down opportunities for a relationship.

When I left for Peru in July, I was about 2 months into a new relationship. With a guy. No one was more surprised than me to find myself dating someone of the opposite gender, and I struggled with it more than I did when I came out of the closet to begin with. It has been almost 6 months, and much to the annoyance of my boyfriend, I am still referring to myself as a lesbian. Either way, he swept me off my feet and supported me 100% when I said I wanted to move abroad again, despite how early on it was in our relationship.

Not only did he encourage a long distance relationship, but he came all the way to visit me. I spent the last 8 days in a fantasy world. Craig came to visit me in Cusco, and it was an unforgettable trip for both of us. For him, it was his first international flight and first real trip abroad. For me, I expected the whole thing to blow up in my face (sorry, babe), but the opposite happened. I put him on 3 flights each way, then dragged all over the region via local public transport to save money, and he only complained once or twice. He didn’t know it, but he was being tested, and I’m happy to say he passed with flying colors.

I’ve now lived in 3 countries – in 3 different cities just outside out some of the worlds biggest attractions. Manhattan, Serengeti National Park, and Machu Picchu. This leads to me reliving the same large tourist attractions over and over. But somehow, it never gets old. My second visit to Machu Picchu was just as incredible as the first time…and I’m still not sure if it’s because of the ruins, or because of him. We spent the week eating, zip lining, exploring multiple Incan ruin sites, shopping, and laughing. 

While I still struggle a little bit with my sexuality (am I betraying the gay community? Am I one of those bisexual girls who takes the easy way out? What do I even identify as?!), and while I still have no idea how I got here, I’m happy that I did. I have just over a week left at Sonco Wasi, and then I take a few weeks to travel. The tentative plan is to cross into Bolivia for a salt flats tour, speed through part of Chile, check out the beaches in Uruguay, and fly home from Argentina! My next post will probably be from the road 🙂

They spoke no Spanish, but we still became friends 

Spent the weekend with my boss’ family in Quillabamba 

Took the special needs kids to the park – but they aren’t the only ones who got to play!
                          Machu Picchu

  Are there ruins behind us or something?

 He’s too tall for Incan doors apparently

Baby llama at Machu Picchu

Ollantaytambo ruins

Chinchero

Llamas. Alpacas. Everywhere. 

What I Do and Why

What People Think I Do

If I had a dollar for every time someone back home said to me, “you are so lucky”, “I’m so jealous of your life”, “I wish I could do what you do”, or “I can’t travel, I don’t have money like you”, I would probably be able to buy my own airplane. I’m going to very briefly explain why this is is a problem:

  • I am not “lucky” for living this way. Please don’t imply that this fell into my lap, like someone handed me a credit card and told me to get on a plane. Please don’t imply that I have some great luck that put me here. I work extremely hard to have gone where I have, to be where I am, and to go where I’m going. Expressing your “jealousy” negates my hard work, which I’m very proud of. I have every right to be proud of my accomplishments, the stamps in my passport, and the work I’ve done abroad.
  • If you, or anyone you know, expresses “jealousy” to me or anyone else traveling extensively – you’re hiding behind your fear. People who want to travel, do it. They find a way. If you are able-bodied, from a developed country, and have the desire, you too can be like me. Don’t tell me you’re jealous or wish you could be like me, when you could do it too.
  • We have different priorities. Do I ask you how you afford to pay for your house or your car? No, because that would be rude. I travel so much because I make it my priority. Implying that I have more money than you or anyone else is wildly offensive. We live different lifestyles, and you have no right to ask me how I afford to travel. People seem to think that I’m on extended vacation over here, meanwhile I work 6 days a week and my job is not without its stress and anxieties.

 

What I Think I Do

When you travel, you meet people, and the small talk is different. At home, we get to know people by asking what they do for a living, where they went to school, etc. But small talk in other countries includes sharing where you’re from, where you’ve been, what you’re doing here, and where you’re going. You sit at a bar in a hostel and speak with people from all over the world, filled with incredible stories and tips. My little autobiography of an introduction has changed drastically over the years, but now it sounds something like:

  • I’m from Long Island, but I spent most of last year in Tanzania. I then backpacked for a few months around Africa, India, and parts of Southeast Asia, and then I ended up here (in Peru). I do international development work for various nonprofits, and keep taking short-term aid contracts. I’m hoping to get an advanced degree in the field in the next few years, and hope to be back in East Africa long term after that.

I’ve somehow made myself sound impressive. Sometimes I get caught up with myself and the things I’ve done, but then I meet people and look around me and realize how much left there still is for me to do in this world. Meeting new people and hearing their stories is humbling, and inspiring.

 

What I Actually Do

I make a point to get involved with locally run organizations. There are too many foreign aid projects in developing countries that are doing more harm than good, too many Americans and Europeans on the ground in these places more worried about their reputations and salaries than they are about what the local community actually needs. Last year in Tanzania, I was working for an American-run NGO. For the most part, this is one of the good ones. There are a few out there – you just have to do your research. But it wasn’t without its hiccups, and that is why this time I was determined to only work with local communities. Sonco Wasi is run entirely by the same few people who started it, the director being my (Peruvian) boss and friend who bends over backwards to do the best she can and address as many needs as possible. While the kids we work with meet a lot of volunteers and people who fill my position, the same core group of people are there for them month after month, year after year. It is sustainable, local, and without the bureaucracy of an international organization.

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Taray, Sacred Valley, Cusco

It has been a huge adjustment for me to work in Peru, where there is of course poverty and hardships, but in my work, it doesn’t quite compare to some of the things I witnessed in East Africa. I came in thinking I knew a lot about poverty and need, but I was wrong. Need depends on what community you’re working in, and what they need, not what I think that they need. It has been an extremely rewarding challenge to adjust my thoughts and knowledge to focus on what this community needs, rather than what previous villages I’ve spent time in have needed. These kids come to our program day after day, and if a day goes by where we can’t go or have to cancel, they really hold it against us! These children are living in poverty that you and I have not experienced, and while there are still people worse off in the world, these kids can’t see a life beyond their small town without our help. They don’t receive gifts, celebrate holidays, travel, get advanced educations, live their dreams… but we are trying to change all of that.

I know I have fundraised for other organizations before, and everyone in my life has gone above and beyond to help.. but I’m asking again. All of my projects, past and present, have been extremely important to me. These kids need hope, they need something to remind them how important they are and that they make a difference in this world.. any small amount helps! And check out the video in my fundraiser here to get a sense of what it actually is that I do. I know a lot of NGOs and charities ask for your donations, but I can assure you that 100% of these funds raised are going directly to the children in Taray, to make their lives a little more special. Thanks for reading, keeping up with my life, and donating to a great cause.

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5 Self Reflection Questions I Need to Ask Myself More

This post isn’t really about my trip, but I’m going to start branching out my blogs and expressing a bit more of what I’m feeling. And as I feel myself getting more comfortable and develop a routine, I’m quick to notice the things I’m doing differently living abroad this time around. It’s hard to find the balance between wanting to stay home and watch TV on your days off, and going out and exploring. I’ve also noticed that the more comfortable I get somewhere, the less motivated I am. The other day I FaceTimed home hysterical crying, and when asked why I was crying, I literally didn’t know. So I’ve been taking the past few days to do some self reflecting, and I want to share a little of what I wrote in my journal, because I think it’s important.

1. Why do I make everything about me? And how can I change that?
I tend to take everything personally, especially when traveling. It’s easy to feel like an outsider when first arriving someplace new – not knowing anyone, customs, the bus system, etc, is frustrating. And being hassled and paying more for things simply because you’re a foreigner.. it’s enough to make some people crazy. When living in Tanzania, on multiple occasions, I found myself yelling at people on the street, in Swahili, so that they knew I lived there and I knew how much things should cost and what I was doing. Things have apparently changed since then. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an outsider, or an expat. You can live someplace for years and years, and you’re still never going to fit in and blend in. It will always be “us” and “them”, no matter how many local friends you have. The difference is that we can leave. We can go home. We can change our paths, our lives, any minute we want to. But a lot of times, the people around us can’t. So the next time I find myself frustrated stuck behind the slow-walking crowd of people, or offered a souvenir on the street for a ridiculously expensive price, or ripped off at the bus station, or when something is stolen from me, I will remember that it’s not personal. It’s not about me. It’s a strange feeling, because when I came home from my first big trip, I was proud that I came back selfish. I came back stronger. I remember saying, “You have to be selfish. You have to take care of yourself. Your feelings come first”. Now, I think I’ve taken it too far. How can I be selfish enough to be a strong, independent person, but selfless enough to change a bit of this beautiful world we live in?

2. How can I make myself realize that happiness is a choice?
I’m quick to think that traveling is my end-all be-all, a cure for a sickness I can’t diagnose. But nothing can be that. On my down days, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to feel what I’m feeling, but I can’t let it overpower me. If I need a day every now and then to veg out and watch movies and pretend I’m someplace else, so be it. But sometimes I have to force myself to go outside and experience the day, or I will get sucked in. Happiness is a state of mind, and I can control it. I have to remind myself every day, like a mantra, that I control my mood. My mood does not control me. You get what you put out, and if I’m always putting out negative energy, exactly what kind of experience am I getting here?

3. Why don’t I realize how rich I am?
I constantly find myself saying, “I can’t, I’m poor” at least once a day. But I’m not poor. I can be on a budget, I can be watching my spending, and I can be in a financial rough patch. But I will never be poor. After all the things I’ve seen and the experiences I have had, you think that I would be more sensitive and aware of these things. But instead, I bring it back to question number one – and I make everything about me. There are people, some of them close friends of mine, who are living in very real poverty. After everything I’ve seen, why do I still complain about things that aren’t worthy of complaints?

4. What will it take for me to be satisfied?
I’ve been in Cusco just over a month and I’m already finding myself googling and planning for trips away. Will I ever stop being bored? Will “the itch” ever go away? I don’t know the answer to that, but this morning I found myself planning a weekend trip I’d like to take soon. After a while, I realized I’m still in a new city. I’m still in a place where I only know a small fraction of what’s going on around me! So with the help of my boss (and friend), we went out shopping for the day in all the local markets, to places I hadn’t been yet, and was able to remind myself that again, attitude is everything.

5. How can I make myself a whole person?
I find myself split between two personalities. The person I am when I’m in the states, is not the person I am when I’m traveling in developing countries.  When I’m home, I find myself skeptical of everyone around me. I often look around a room and try to figure out if I actually like any of the people I’m hanging out with, or if I’m just so used to their company that it’s routine. But I’m also more realistic and goal-orientated. I know my routine, my friends, my life, and I stay in more than I go out because I tend to be more practical. When I’m abroad, I’m friendly, I’m open-minded, I’m less judgmental, etc. I’m more likely to go out, drink, make new friends, participate in intellectual conversations and learn new things. I grow more as a person when I’m gone, but find myself shrinking back inside myself when I come home. What steps can I take to be both of these people at once? How can I be happy with the life I’ve chosen, no matter where I am or who I’m with?

Since the first time I left home, in January 2013, these 5 questions have played over and over inside of me, often without me even realizing it. I’m taking it upon myself to put it in writing, and to work through these thoughts every day. I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answers, but the first step is addressing these issues. Traveling is meant to be fun, yes, but it’s also meant to be a learning experience. I don’t ever want to stop growing, even if that means having to feel difficult emotions.

What They Don’t Tell You About Backpacking Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is easily one of the most popular backpacker destinations in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s beautiful, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s cheap. So I thought, I’m a pro at the hard way of traveling (my first real trip being in rural East Africa), so why not breeze my way through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and learn about some new cultures and people? Reflecting on the past 7 or so weeks of travel has put a lot of things into perspective for me. Clearly, I had expectations for this trip and what it would teach me, but l ended up learning something entirely different than I anticipated. But for the purpose of this blog I will be reffering specifically to the month I have been in Southeast Asia. It is beautiful here – the scenery, the temples, the history and culture, the people. That being said, it is commercialized. It is difficult to feel like many things are truly authentic, and to me, everything seems to have been exaggerated (or created) for tourists. Let me explain. The places I’ve been have been fun, beautiful, and I enjoyed them immensely. But I have had very little interaction with locals since being in India. I’ve had a great time, making friends with travelers from all over. I’ve been on busses, boats, trains and planes – all of which crammed with tourists. I look around me and see Europeans, Australians, Americas. Very rarely have I even seen or interacted with Thai or Loatian people beyond market places and restaurant employees. Every cultural activity I have tried to observe or participate in has pretty much backfired and left me confused and disappointed. One time that specifically sticks out in my mind is in Laos. At dawn in Luang Prabang, we crawled out of bed to sit on the curb and watch as the monks went around accepting food offerings. This is called the Alms Giving Ceremony. But instead of feeling like I was apart of something, or like I was watching something religious and important, I was swarmed with Lao women trying to sell me packaged foods to give the monks. I refused, and later saw the monks throwing it all out because they weren’t respectful  offerings.

I’m between a rock and a hard place. I am excited to see westerners out exploring the world. What I am not excited about is that if I were to generalize the backpackers I have encountered, it would be as drunk and destructive. When I walk down the street, shop owners should not be trying to get my attention by yelling “Cheap beer!!! Cheap beer here!!!!”. When I try to book a Ha Long Bay cruise, I shouldn’t have to actively search out a boat that doesn’t identify as a “party cruise”. And when I do find one (sort of) I shouldn’t be out on the bay in beautiful scenery, trying to relax, listening to the loud music and drunk yelling from the boats around me all through the night. People don’t seem to realize that when they are out in the world, they are representing their home countries. Is this really how you all want others to think your home is like? What this trip seems to be for most of the people around me is a giant frat party. For example, I have not been to Vang Vieng, Laos, but in recent years the Lao government had to shut down a majority of the town because too many tourists died due to tubbing along the river while too drunk. Why are backpackers here so stupid? I mean really, would you ever swan dive into a shallow river while drunk without a decent hospital around for miles at home?! And the tubing has just picked up back where it started again, according to some people I have met.Not to mention this type of tourism does more harm than good to local economy. According to the UN, (more info here), out of every $100 spent on vacation in developing countries, only $5 goes back into the community. This is due to travel agencies, hostels run by forgeiners, safari companies, etc. And it is becoming harder and harder to participate in responsible tourism at this rate, especially because most of these backpackers don’t even realize they are doing more harm than good to the places they are visiting. And it’s not just their fault – locals don’t even seem to realize its happening.  
Currently, I am in Vietnam, and it has been nearly impossible to have any hotel or travel agent arrange a public bus ticket for me, as they all insist that we are only able to ride the tourist busses (for 3x the price). When asking directions at reception to the public bus station, we were flat out told tourists can’t take them (but we did). And don’t even get me started on the taxis – we nearly got into a fist fight with a driver (in a government regulated taxi) who rigged his meter, and took us the long way on purpose. This is all because we made it this way, through an endless cycle of throwing our money around and encouraging this kind of behavior. In relation to this, there’s voluntourism. Volunteering is okay – if done the correct way (more on that later). But in Cambodia, more ‘orphanages’ are actually not what they appear. Parents are often paid a small fee to pull their kids out of school to send them to these places, where tourists come to ‘teach English for the day’, take Facebook pictures with the kids, and leave. Every day. This was created specifically because westerners come in and think that they know more than locals. What makes us think that we have any right to show up and teach? Are you a licensed teacher? Do you know the local language or any local cutoms? Who do we think we are? We seem to think that we come in and help out for a day or a weekend, and change a kids life. Let me tell you something: you can volunteer in the same place for years, the correct way, and still not change anyone’s life. A good friend told me, “you can only do what you can, for who you can, for as long as you can”. The best thing you can do for developing countries, is to educate yourselves on responsible tourism and where to put your money while traveling, not by attempting to solve the world problems by teaching a child the abc’s (which no doubt they already know backwards and forwards). 
When I say that my favorite thing about this trip so far has been India, people laugh at me. One person even accused me of liking to be around dirt and poverty….because why else would I like it there? I liked it there because it was real. It wasn’t catered to me. The things I did and saw were not massively exaggerated for tourists, to suck the money out of me. There were some things, in markets and shops, of course. But the actual lifestyle of the people there? They didn’t care who I was or how much money I had – but they were happy to see me, and happy to share their culture with me, with no price tag or exaggeration. Stephanie left India saying she was excited for Thailand, that she didn’t really like it so much in India. But now, weeks later, she says India is her favorite place in comparisson. Because it wasn’t this commercialized, and travelers around us were a lot more aware of, well, everything. And I get it. I’m on vacation. I’m not working or studying or volunteering. I am supposed to enjoy sightseeing and relaxing. But I look around me, at all the college kids with their backpacks and their beers, and I feel sad. And I know I am only one of few here who feel like this. But I like to think that that’s because I cared enough to dig deeper, to try harder, and to not take the easy route. Most of them will return home, back to their real lives, and be happy that they explored. But they won’t feel moved, or changed, or broken – because they won’t have learned anything deeper about themselves or the world around us. And I’m sad for Southeast Asia, because they never get a break from us.

This feeling I have, as well as a factor of other things, has lead to a change of plans for the last few weeks of my trip. Stephanie is having a change of heart, and has decided to return home a little early. She is leaving November 1st (this Sunday) and I am flying to the Phillipines to do two weeks of volunteer work for an organization doing work in the slums of Manila. Volunteer work any less than 3 months (although 6+ is better), has been proven to actually be more harmful than helpful. I like to think of myself as being very aware of unethical development work, but it has been hard to find the time to research reputabule organizations. However, I have managed to find one. Smokey Tours in Manila gives slum tours to outsiders to promote awareness. I know what you are thinking, as slum tourism is controversial in itself. But Smokey Tours is locally run, providing jobs as guides to people who grew up in the slums, and 100% (let me repeat: one hundred percent) of profits go to the actual slum community for feeding programs, medial aid, and education. Due to the limited amount of time I have, I don’t want to be too involved and do any damage, so instead I’ll help out behind the scenes. I’ll be staying in a hostel in the city and helping with office work, as they need help with social media as well as developing a better Volunteer Program (something I know quite a bit about)! They also have a few training sessions for new guides going on while I am there, so I’ll be joining a few tours to help with the English. If I can, I’ll spend some time in a slum family’s home for my own stimulation and education (I’m not expecting to move mountains in such short time), but that is completely up in the air.
From there I’ll fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to spend 2 nights before flying home on November 17th. My trip is winding down, and I am having mixed feelings about it all. I realize how negative this post sounds, but I don’t mean it to be. I have loved a lot of things here, and don’t regret it for a second. And what I do know is how much of a learning experience this has been, and what it’s taught me about myself: the kind of person that I am, and the kind of person that I want to be.
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