My NOLS Instructor Course

Maybe you’ve never been on a long term hiking expedition. Maybe you’ve never gone further than car camping. Heck, maybe you’ve never eaten s’mores that didn’t come out of your toaster. That doesn’t matter, because a NOLS expedition can blow your world open to infinite possibilities.
My own journey to becoming a NOLS instructor was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. I had to run from rock falls, and was nearly hit by lightning. Here’s one of the more humorous stories from my adventure.

August 2, 2010
The end was near. We had been crossing glacier for hours (a slow process when you’re tied to 4 people and walking through deep snow), and all that lay between me and solid ground was an icy stream. I saw Audrey leap, fall, and fumble up the other side. “I recommend NOT doing that,” she said, “try up there.” The spot she pointed at with her trekking pole looked firm, stable. I envisioned myself gliding gracefully across the ice and up onto the snow. I began to move toward my desired crossing and sank thigh deep into slush. As the freezing water began to flood my boot, I tried frantically to pull it free. But the ice was a vice around my boot. I began stabbing the snow with my ax, trying to break myself free. Once I released the snow’s death grip on my now frozen foot, I quickly reviewed my options. Walking was unfortunately not one of them. It was time to crawl. I made my way on hands and knees until I reached the creek, at which point I was able to wade across. My steps dredged up a sickly, yellow-brown sludge. On the other side of the stream, I was back on my hands and knees, crawling up the bank. In my mind flashed an image from Austin Powers. Yeah, baby, yeah! Now be a cougar, be a cougar! As I finally stood I felt the urge to sing “I’m too sexy for this glacier, too sexy for this-Ahh!” I sunk again into the snow. “Screw you glacier!” -is the PG version of my exclamation. As I finally made my way up the snow, I looked back just in time to see Logan hop gingerly across the creek. Son of a-!
It wasn’t the first time I was laughed at during the expedition, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.


More photos at


Quit your crappy job and travel

A few people have told me they want to travel but don’t have the money. Sorry, but that tired, old excuse for not traveling doesn’t work anymore. There are so many options available to travel for free, or really really cheap. Mind you, these vacations do not involve being served fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them, but they may involve relaxing yoga retreats and good, organic food.

Volunteering      Not only do you have a free place to stay, but you get fed too! Membership is only about $20 for a year, and you have access to descriptions of each farm. You contact the owner of each farm directly and discuss the activities that are going on, and the best times to work. Not all WWOOF opportunities are on farms either. Many are yoga retreats, where other people actually pay to go. There are adventure lodges, orphanages, environmental centers, breweries, and all kinds of different organizations.      Similar to WWOOF, but less emphasis on farming, and more on language learning and cultural exchange. Either way, your trip is what you make it. Membership costs 18 euros for 2 years

Where to stay      Get this, there are cool people all over the world who want to let you stay with them for free. Why? Because they can say they have friends from (insert cool country here), and when they travel abroad they can stay somewhere for free too! This is just like another social networking site. You can see pictures of the person you’ll be staying with, and read what other travelers have said about them. I love Couchsurfing, and not just because I get a free place to stay (and often free food). I get to feel like a local, and make real friends in every place I visit. I also occasionally meet other people to travel with.



Getting Paid

Maybe you thought you didn’t have any marketable skills, but if you speak English (your are reading this, right?), you do! If you’re really serious about travel (and I think you should be), then you should look into opportunities teaching English. These are better than free because you get paid. Here’s the deal: some teaching jobs are posted online, but lots more are available if you network. I know most people want a job lined up before you go somewhere, but it just doesn’t work like that. Go to Couchsurfing meetups, check out bulletin boards at hostels, or just start asking around.

My strategy is just to get out there, talk to people, and hope someone needs some help with something I know how to do. Believe it or not, it happens quite often. I have had to turn down offers because I already had so much going on! This isn’t even a complete list; these are just the services my friends or I have used.


What am I doing with my life?

I don’t know what beat I’m marching to, but one thing is certain, I can march no other way. For a long time I have been following my own path, however unusual, with little thought to what was driving me. In fact, my motivations often changed on a daily basis. I always thought that I would eventually find something that I loved and wanted to devote my life to, something that would both positively impact the world and provide me with enough money to live comfortably. Now that I am 30 I’m starting to get a little worried that my chance may have passed me by. Sure, 30 is the new 20, but Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Blink that it takes about 10 years to become great at something. Fine for those people whose parents had them learning the piano at age 8, but do the rest of us have to resign ourselves to mediocrity? I also read recently that people overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in 10. Should I start planning now to be great at something when I’m 40?

Even if I chose to do that, I still haven’t figured out what it is I should devote my efforts to. I have never found that thing I can focus all my energies on, like swimming all day, everyday a la Michael Phelps. Rather, I see life more like a buffet; try a little of everything. Sure, I get pretty good at each thing I do, suggesting that I could be great if I chose something and devoted more energy to it, but I’ve never been the “focus on one thing” type. I would say I’m a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, except that I have a sheet of paper that says I’m a Master of Science (a point which I find hilarious).

The one thing I can say for myself is that I always follow my heart. Actually, sometimes my heart just won’t shut the hell up. Which leads me to my current situation, wandering aimlessly through Africa. Well, I guess I have a few aims…

1) To show people that you do not need lots of money to travel,

2) To let people know that traveling is not scary! It’s magical and wonderful, and something everyone should do,

3) To learn new skills, and use the skills I have to benefit others through volunteering,

4) To take lots of cool pictures and videos in order to show my friends and family what the rest of the world is like, and

5) To learn more about myself and possibly find something to devote my life to.

I hope I have sufficiently justified myself. The last point will be a large part of the discussion on this blog, since it seems to be a problem widely suffered these days. In fact, I found a great article about the Quarter-life Crisis, which saved my life on one of my “freak-out” days.

If you aren’t convinced, maybe my online journey of self discovery will help you. Or maybe you can just laugh at my stupidity. In the meantime, go download some of my pretty pictures from around the world.

The Beginning

        While cooking breakfast this morning I was also making notes in my journal, and as I walked to the stove to remove my eggs the page turned back to the first day of my African journey. I’ve kept a journal since I was 8 years old, and my favorite part is going back occasionally to read entries from long ago, and having the sights, smells, and emotions rush back to you. This was a particularly exciting day for me as I left the protective womb of the Peace Corps and ventured out on my own. I thought I would share a little blurb with you.

4 April 2009

It just occurred to me that I could be in the US right now if I wanted to. I’m sitting in a bus station in Pretoria and I just had that feeling that I could be in the US waiting to go somewhere familiar, somewhere with friends I’ve known forever. For some reason it seemed like a very strange thought…

This is it! I’m on the bus, and my adventure is officially beginning. I feel as though I’m floating. Maybe sitting on the 2nd story of the bus, looking out a huge window, and listening to “Such Great Heights” has something to do with that.

Ha, I remember that moment. It feels like a million years ago.

Cape Town update

I cannot believe I’ve been in Cape Town for almost a month. I’ve done so much, but I will try to recap for you. When I first arrived, I stayed at 33 South backpackers, which was recommended by a friend. It is in the Observatory neighborhood, near the UCT campus. It was 8pm when I arrived, and I was hungry. The restaurant I went to around the corner had a poetry reading going on. This was a good sign. I instantly fell in love with Obz and 33 South. A few days later I moved to a couch near the city center. My first official Couchsurfing experience was with Derek, a local photographer, and I had a great time. I met another couchsurfer named Maya, who also happens to be an awesome chic. Although I only stayed at Derek’s for 2 nights, Maya and I ended up hanging out together for the next week until she returned to the States. I bounced back and forth between couches and backpackers for a while. It’s a good thing everything I own fits into a backpack! Then I went to Stellenbosch for a few days. It is a small university town that is well known for its wine. I was fortunate to have arrived at the same time as the Stellenbosch Wine Festival. Instead of having to go around to all the wineries, they all came to me! There was also incredible food and live music. You can’t beat that!

Maya introduced me to another couchsurfer, Nick, who is also planning to travel north through Africa. I wondered if he would be willing to let me tag along, since he was buying a vehicle. It turns out that he was looking for a travel buddy! Not only that, but he is a photographer and was hoping to find someone who could take video. So for the past few weeks we have been making lists, shopping for gear, and brainstorming ideas for videos. Nick has spent most of his time kitting up the Toyota bakkie (pick-up), and I have been perfecting my cooking skills (especially making curry and roti ☺ ).

We have been fortunate to find Mornay, the best couchsurfing host in Cape Town, and possibly the world. She has put up with us for 2 weeks, gives me rides around town, and shares her amazing wine collection with us. She even took me to Cape Point, and forgave me for a little mishap I caused. As we were leaving the national park there was a large group of baboons on the side of the road, including several mothers carrying babies. There were a lot of people parked on the other side of the road taking pictures, and I couldn’t resist joining them. I jumped out of the car and ran around to the back. I immediately snapped a few photos and then glanced back at the car. You know that moment you see something disastrous about to happen and your body freezes, but in your mind you yell “Noooooo!” That is what happened as I saw a giant baboon climb into my open car door. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that there might still be some baboons on my side of the road. Mornay jumped out of the car. A man came over and told us to open all the doors. Two minutes later, instead of the baboon climbing out, another one climbed in. Fortunately, this one only stayed for a minute and left. I was freaking out, certain that the animal would destroy Mornay’s vehicle. Twenty minutes later it finally climbed out. Thankfully it did not destroy anything, but it did empty the entire contents of both our purses. It had also chewed on Mornay’s pepper spray container, which could have been a serious disaster had it sprayed itself. But the baboon left, and only the stress hormones coursing through my blood remained.

Life Lesson from Africa: if you leave your car door open, wil... on Twitpic
Nick and I are almost ready to go. The truck is nearly finished and we have all the camping gear we need. The only remaining roadblock is my passport. Seems like every travel blogger has to write about her visa woes, but I want to wait for this problem to be resolved before I even go there. Of course we have goals for when we want to leave (hint: soon), but I have learned not to plan too seriously. We’ll go when we’re ready. That’s all I can really say.

What’s cooking in SA

It’s important to me that I travel responsibly on my journey through Africa. This means supporting local businesses, practicing cultural sensitivity, and using public transportation. I will avoid flying within Africa at all costs in order to reduce the footprint created by my journey (plus public transport is just more fun!). Of course, I still plan on seeing all the amazing things there are to see. There is a website that is helping me do this. It is, and it has information on great vacations all over the world that also benefit local communities. It was through this website that I found Andulela. They have tours in Cape Town, which are guided by locals and involve learning about the different communities. There were so many possibilities for cool tours, but I really wanted to learn how to cook a curry. So I took the Cape Malay cooking class. We actually went to the home of local woman and got hands-on experience making sambosas, curry, rotis, and sambals. We also got a guided tour of the Bo-Kaap museum and neighborhood. The money I spent on the class went right into the neighborhood. I even bought some spices at the local family-owned spice shop for good measure (plus I was hoping this would help my curry skills). I had such a great time, and I hope to get a few more tours in before I leave Cape Town.

And by the way, I can totally make a kick-ass curry now! Check out the video

Touch the sky

I’ve imagined it a thousand times. My heart starts racing. The wind is blasting in my face. Then I jump, and my stomach flip-flops over and over again. I have dreamt about skydiving for a long time, despite my intense fear of falling. But I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and it’s irrational nature. I’ve faced some pretty scary things recently- living alone in a developing country, suddenly losing my home and job, having a scarce amount of money, traveling alone through Africa- and whenever I start to stress out I just remind myself that there really is nothing bad happening at this moment. The only frightening situations are the ones created by my mind. I know many people who have skydived, and they all loved it. Raved about it even. That’s why I wanted to try it, after all. So what’s there to be afraid of?

The flight was fabulous, and the day was perfect. One minute I was gazing out at the ocean, and the next at the misty mountains stretching along the northern horizon. South Africa is incredibly beautiful. Once we reached 10,000 feet everything happened so quickly. The door opened and I did feel the wind in my face, but my heart wasn’t pounding as hard as I’d imagined. Then we jumped, and my stomach did not flip-flop. It was exhilarating and peaceful at the same time. It’s not like when you fall near the ground, because there is no fear of hitting something. The ground is so far away you just feel free, totally free. After the chute opens is the strangest sensation. There you are, in the middle of nothing. You look down at your feet, but there is nothing below them. The ground is still a thousand feet away, and you are floating along like a balloon.

Touching the ground was a relief, not because I was afraid, but because I had so many thoughts and emotions to digest. This new experience was unlike any other, and it is unlikely that anything will ever match it. Until, of course, I jump on my own.
Check out the video

Bye bye J-Bay

Although I try to avoid having preconceptions about people and places, one of the things I wondered about when coming to South Africa was racism. I was happy to meet tons of cool, open-minded people. In fact, the celebration of their ‘Rainbow Culture’ is one of the things I love about SA. But just like in the States, many of the not-so cool people live way out in the small corners of the country. Nothing seems to make them surface more than helping the street kids. Since beginning this I have really starting developing a relationship with the kids, and I’ve discovered that eating with them is a great way to bond. Sometimes I make or buy some food and go eat with them. It seems like every time I am doing anything with the kids, someone feels the need to come up to me and spend a half hour telling me about how they’ve tried to help the kids, but they are worthless and don’t want help. Some people say ‘be careful, they’ll steal from you, they’ll rape you’ etc, etc. The other day I was buying burgers and chips from a takeaway place across from my house to eat with them. The woman behind the counter saw me talking to the kids, and proceeded to tell me that they would sell the food I give them to buy glue. She also complained that her car-guard didn’t chase them away. Now, why would you speak that way to a customer when you know that person is buying food (from your business) for those kids? The other thing that amazes me is how many people have ‘tried to help the street kids’. The takeaway woman tried to convince me that there are homes for the kids to sleep and get meals, but when I asked her where, because I’d been looking for these places, she had no answer. These people are always negative about what we’re doing. Meanwhile, the social workers and police officers that actually do work with these kids are extremely positive and supportive of the program.
One of the things that drives me crazy is the attitude that people already know everything about you, and you know nothing about Africa. These people don’t even take 2 minutes to ask you who you are, or what you’ve done. Mostly I think they just want to hear themselves talk. And boy do they love to talk. In fact, while I’m being negative I might as well bring up the issue that most people from this town are completely full of shit. What I mean is they exaggerate stories to a ridiculous extent, they agree to do things they have no intention of doing, and they gossip all the time. The gossiping is a classic small-town symptom, I know, but sheesh! I’m not from here and I don’t know Jane Smith, so what makes you think I care if she went to jail for marijuana possession years ago?
J-Bay is unique as far as small towns go in that it has so much potential. Beautiful beaches and visitors from all around the world bring in a constant flow of fresh energy, which seems to be completely squandered. People even pay to come and volunteer, then leave angry because they are not being utilized. Yet non-profits struggle supposedly due to lack of people and resources. A lot of people need to get out of their ruts and off their butts. They also need to stop being bitter about foreigners coming in and ‘criticizing’ what they are doing. Criticism is a good thing; it should motivate you and help you to grow.
These are some of the reasons why I have decided to leave J-Bay. Don’t get me wrong, I had some great times here. I had fun bartending at the Moroccan Lounge, made good friends, met inspiring travelers from all over the world, got to know the street kids, and even surfed in a world-famous spot. I am ready to continue my travels and see more of Africa. The most difficult decision to make while traveling is the decision to leave. But I can’t ignore the signs that tell me to go, and I know when it feels right. Just call me Mary fuckin’ Poppins. Next stop, Cape Town.
After writing this blog I felt bad about being so negative. Then I realized that I can’t only blog about positive things. The fact is that sometimes you run into jerks, or shitty situations, or sometimes you are just plain unhappy for no good reason. I do apologize for being negative, but I’m just keepin’ it real.

desert-travel quote