Put it in the Box

Hey, look at me!

Hey, look at me!

In a place far, far away from where I am, lives a boy whose smile has touched me in a way that he would never know…About five years ago, I visited a primary school in Oltukai, Tanzania. It was part of an academic trip for a grad course I was taking. Essentially, the purpose of the trip was to get a firsthand understanding of how tourism could contribute to the economic development of a developing country. It had nothing to do with getting involved in a community or volunteerism project. However, prior to the trip, our professor asked if Tanzania March 5-14 915each of us could buy some school supplies, at our own willingness, to be given collectively to a certain school that we would be visiting. I bought several boxes of wood pencils. The visit took place on our last day in Tanzania, after seeing some of the major attractions of the country such as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti National Park, Lake Manyara and a Maasai village. It was quite a transition from the major to the minor. But what I did not know then was that the experience from the latter turned out to be one of the BIG things that remains etched in my memory. Upon arrival at the school, my eyes had to make some adjustment. The buildings where the kids learned had a very basic look…and feel. Do not expect fancy colors,

Oltukai School, Tanzania

Oltukai School, Tanzania

arts, corridors, sophisticated windows…But I suppose a little is better than nothing…our timing was good as we got there while the kids were enjoying their recess. Some kids were acting cool outside, while some others were doing their own things in the classrooms. I found my way into one of the classrooms. I imagined the kids would run away, or stare blankly at me like I was some monster trespassing their territory. They did not. In fact, most of them had a big smile carved on their adorable faces. Some were giggling. They were pretty friendly toward

"I learned world geography today"

“I learned world geography today”

foreigners. I approached one group of kids, took a snapshot of them and showed it to them. Their giggles became louder. They asked for more. I took more pictures for them. The other kids came around me, also wanting their pictures taken. They were excited. I was too. Photography seemed so magical for them. I did not know it could have such ‘happy’ hold over some people. I was pleasantly surprised that the kids’ grasp of the English language was good enough to permit a two-way understanding between them and me… Some kids were eager to show what they had learned, holding their books before me. In fact, they were Tanzania March 5-14 908competing with each other for attention. I scanned their books. One was obviously related to world geography. I admired them for their spirit of learning, despite the shortages they had. Time passed by so fast…as I was leaving, the kids were following me…I took more pictures of them, and told them to take care till I would see them again (if I ever would…). These kids, as my guide put it, just wanted to have their smiles put in the box. One of the boxes is now sitting in my home cabinet…it displays the beautiful art of his smile.Tanzania March 5-14 924

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My Amazonian Bliss

Cruising down the Rio Alto Madre de Dios

Cruising down the Rio Alto Madre de Dios

I was fortunate enough to see part of the Amazon on the Peruvian side about a month ago. It was one of the places on my (long) to-see-places list. There are a number of options to enjoy the Peruvian Amazon. My friend and I chose Manu National Park, a UNESCO World Natural

The most romantic lunch place, ever!

The most romantic lunch place, ever!

Heritage Site that is home to a great diversity of wildlife over a wide range of cloud forest and rainforest habitats. The road trip from Cusco to our first night’s lodging took approximately 8 hours. Once we entered the park, much of the ride became bumpy and winding. A careless mistake on the driver’s part

Have your binoculars and look for birds and animals way up on the trees. By the way, wearing dark clothes is required.

Have your binoculars and look for birds and animals way up on the trees. By the way, wearing dark clothes is required.

would mean a plunge into death down below the Andes highlands. The journey was long because we visited an indigenous museum in the small town of Paucartambo where we learned about the indigenous tribes living in the Peruvian Amazon (of all the tribes, I remember the ‘naked’ people the most!), and

IMG_0440made several stops in the cloud forest where we walked parts of the journey in search of animals. We spotted several types of monkeys (e.g. woolly monkeys) and different types of birds including the

Cock of the Rock, the national bird of Peru. The one in the picture is a female.

Cock of the Rock, the national bird of Peru. The one in the picture is a female.

national bird of Peru, Cock of the Rock. The cloud forest was very pretty, of course, and chilly (a jacket was a must for me). The lodge was pretty rustic. I was thankful for the mosquito net provided by the lodge operator as the mosquitoes there seemed bigger than my pinky finger (no kidding! We were advised to have insect repellent with minimum 25%

Our guide, Alex, sharing his jungle knowledge with us

Our guide, Alex, sharing his jungle knowledge with us

deet). The second and third days were pretty much spent in the dense rainforest of Manu National Park: trekking, learning about plants, bird watching, wildlife spotting, learning about jungle surviving skills… the rain came down unexpectedly and heavy on the second day. The second

The camouflage house.

The camouflage house.

night was spent in a camouflage house built close to a mammal salt lick. We got there just after sunset. One of the first things we did upon arrival was to make our beds with mosquito netting, and ate our packed dinner. Our guide asked us to not use the flashlight and to keep quiet. The night was very silent and dark.

Mammal salt lick

Mammal salt lick

Sounds of the insects seemed too loud. Then there were the distant sounds of animals wandering, nosing around. Our guide shined his flashlight on the mammal salt lick every now and then to see if there was any animal. None of us were talking. We could not see each other but we knew we were all there

together. My friend and I lay down with our heads stuck outside the net and patiently waited for animals to show up at the salt lick. Fireflies were our

I can't recall the name of this type of frog...but it's amazing that its color blends in to its surrounding

I can’t recall the name of this type of frog…but it’s amazing that its color blends in to its surrounding

entertainment, dancing around in the calm, lovely darkness. A few hours later, a Brazilian tapir appeared in the salt lick. Our guide shined his flashlight on the big guy. It was amazing that the animal seemed blind to the light. He stayed in the spotlight for quite some time, not knowing that we were watching his every move. Much later in the night, we saw a caiman crocodile. We could not IMG_0476figure his length. What I did know was that his eye seemed amazingly blue in the darkness…I was awaken to our guide’s wake-up call as early as 6.30am. Since it rained much of yesterday,

Rain or shine, trekking is on. Much of the forest floor was flooded due to the heavy rain the previous night. Crossing a river on a fallen tree trunk was part of the fun. You cant help but wonder what is lurking in the water

Rain or shine, trekking is on. Much of the forest floor was flooded due to the heavy rain the previous night. Crossing a river on a fallen tree trunk was part of the fun. You cant help but wonder what is lurking in the water

the water level of the forest streams had gone up. Some areas became impassable. We had to find alternative routes. At one point, we had to cross a quite-deep river on a fallen tree trunk. Balancing was the key point here. A misstep would mean a drop into the brown-colored river below.Later that day, we went to the observation platform. We saw more birds including the beautiful macaws, woodpecker, and the others whose names I can’t recall (this place is truly a solitary bird-watching paradise). We sat on

Tree silhouettes melt into the backdrop of the night sky

Tree silhouettes melt into the backdrop of the night sky

top of the platform till the sun set, washing the sky a brilliant orange behind black silhouetted trees. Very pretty, indeed! We stayed on to admire the

The observation platform...and the moon.

The observation platform…and the moon.

moon and stars using our guide’s telescope. Believe it or not, we also saw Venus and Jupiter (my friend is a space physicist). That night, our last, we had a good meal together and chatted till I-don’t-know-how-long. My expectation for the entire trip was to see a lot of wildlife especially anaconda and jaguar (remember the movie Anaconda? That was in my head). I did not see them. Despite my unmet expectation, the trip was very rewarding and memorable. We were lucky enough to see tapir, caiman, capybaras, monkeys, many different types of birds, insects IMG_0525(including colourful butterflies, spiders, tarantula, ants, termites), different types of plant species…there were also the little moments that made the whole jungle experience significantly richer- the good meals shared together, the ‘Tarzan’ experience, crossing a river by

Dipping into the natural hot spring in the middle of the jungle. You'll smell like mud afterward. A real organic perfume.

Dipping into the natural hot spring in the middle of the jungle. You’ll smell like mud afterward. A real organic perfume.

walking on a fallen timber, walking in watery areas, dipping into the natural hot spring in the midst of the Peruvian jungle (and having a ‘muddy perfume’ all over you after), the boat ride (the river was amazingly beautiful), the night spent at the camouflage house, trekking in the rain, the sunset and unplanned astronomical tour on top of the observation platform, hilarious fellow travelers and a very knowledgeable and funny guide, the night walk (at one point, we just stopped in our tracks in the middle of nowhere, turned off our flashlight

Help! my rubber boot got buried in the mud!

Help! my rubber boot got buried in the mud!

and let the darkness engulf us for I-don’t-know-how-long), the afternoon nap in the hammock, the scary noises we heard from the unoccupied next room when it was near midnight (it is a long story that deserves its own page)…the whole trip may not be like those big Amazonian trips portrayed by some travel documentaries or movies…but then it is very true that one’s travel experience is subjective and individual, and that little moments can actually make a trip GREAT…the big things do count

The Tarzan experience.

The Tarzan experience.

for one’s enjoyment, but in my opinion, when it comes to memories, many times when we reflect, it is the little moments that make us smile big, and sometimes just throw our head back and laugh. That’s my Amazonian bliss!

The Empire State: the Return

DSCF7664I have heard that tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy will ensure a return trip to the city. Perhaps there are many places with that sort of legend….I visited New York City for the very first time almost 6 years ago. I still remember I was bursting with excitement about the trip. The city was huge with lots to see of course, and I had only a weekend to pack as much as I could in my itinerary. Time was my biggest enemy then. I was crazy about telling people ‘I have been to New York’ (I realize that attention-thirsting part of me has died as the years passed). I did not do my homework (i.e. researching about places, etc). I really hope to see the Statue of Liberty, the iconic landmark of the Big Apple. The last day was dedicated to seeing that green lady. I boarded a certain cruise, so looking forward to seeing the Statue up close.

The seven spikes of the crown: spread the values of democracy to the seven continents of the world.

The seven spikes of the crown: spread the values of democracy to the seven continents of the world.

What I did not know was that the cruise was only for the Ellis Island.The trip to the island took much of the day, so making a trip to see the Statue of Liberty would be impossible since the last cruise departed at 2pm (or 3pm). On the way to Ellis Island, we passed the green lady. Disappointed, of course. But I could only blame myself for not…anyway, I got an opportunity to visit the city about 3 weeks ago. This time I did my homework well (at least I thought I did). My expectation, this time, was to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Again, I planned to see the green lady on the last day, and again, I only had a weekend.

Side of the Statue of Liberty...one leg is ahead of the other, signifying moving forward.

Side of the Statue of Liberty…one leg is ahead of the other, signifying moving forward.

Back of the Statue of Liberty

Back of the Statue of Liberty

The night before, I took a close look at my cruise ticket. At the bottom of it, it said ‘Statue of Liberty – Grounds Only’. A bad feeling washed over me, and quickly I looked for more information. I was struck with a massive disappointment when I discovered (should have discovered way before) that a climb to the crown had to be made at least 3 months in advance, and it was all booked up till the middle of September…disappointed as I was, I still enjoyed my trip to the Liberty Island. From the grounds, I could admire the green lady in the full-length. She was huge!!! I also took a free guided tour provided by a National Park Service representative. I got to know the lady in depth. Fascinating! I admired her as a symbol of democracy and freedom. The crown, the book, the torch, the position of her legs are all indications of these highly-appreciated values…

Manhattan skyline from the Liberty Island. The day was burning hot. Ice cold lemonade was a real treat

Manhattan skyline from the Liberty Island. The day was burning hot. Ice cold lemonade was a real treat

It was a satisfying trip, despite my initial disappointment…but…maybe… there is…a third call… to return…my dear faithful partners in crime (mom, sisters and John)- PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE LAST LINE :-D.

White Desert Experience

The White Desert, Egypt

The White Desert, Egypt

What do you expect to see when you visit a desert? Could that possibly be white sand? Most likely not. But this is precisely what you will see at the phenomenal White Desert in Egypt. It boasts an amazing chalk-white landscape dotted with unique rock formations. My sister and I visited the place in 2012, employing the service of Memphis Tours. There were just five of us: my sister and I, our guide, the cook and the driver. We left Cairo as early as 4am. The journey was long, but we got there just as the sun was about to set. Seeing the White Desert gave me that unbelievable feeling. It was ‘weird’ in a magical way. The desert was so huge, the horizons so distant. Spending a night there was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Camping in the middle of the desert, far far away from civilizations. When the night fell, darkness blanketed the desert as if someone had turned off all the lights.

That rock formation looks like...a duck? The wind is truly a creative force of the nature. Don't you think?

That rock formation looks like…a duck? The wind is truly a creative force of the nature. Don’t you think?

But up there, in the beautiful night skies, the moon and the stars were mercifully shining their light on us.
Some of the rock formations appeared quite spooky as they reflected the glow from the faint light of the moon and the stars. The night was cold and, when no one was talking, so silent that the crackling sounds of the wood fire and the whooshing sounds of the eternal wind seemed too loud to our ears. After dinner, we went for a walk, barefoot, feeling the damp cool sand between our toes. We were not heading to a particular point. We just kept walking, appreciating the desert wonders and freedom endowed to us. No words were exchanged as if we silently understood each other about not tainting the magnificent moment with a human voice.

A peaceful night of the desert

A peaceful night of the desert

At one point, we just sat on a huge boulder and gazed at the stars.  The silence was almost deafening. The only sound heard was the sound of the swirling desert wind, caressing us like a faithful lover….what a wonderful world, I thought, savoring each moment of the night. That night, in the White Desert, was definitely a night to remember- all my life long.

Songs that Relive Memories

Do you have any songs that whenever you hear them, you are transported back to certain places that you have visited before? I do…one of them is…

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Badaling, Beijing, China

We (my mom, sisters and I) were on a train to the Badaling Great Wall on our second last day in China, after seeing the other two less-touristic sections of the Great Wall (Jinshanling – Simatai and Mutianyu) in the early part of our trip. The train did not have sufficient seats for all the passengers, and since Badaling was the most conveniently accessible section of the Great Wall, the train was crowded with people who were curious about the most talked about attraction in the country. The journey took about 1.5 hours. Our legs became sore after standing for over 30 minutes so we decided to sit on the train floor. Some other people were also doing that. The train was polluted by noises of people talking, laughing, baby crying, train employees pushing a cart selling instant noodles, snacks and coffee/tea…

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Badaling, Beijing, China. It is the most crowded section of the Great Wall. You may want to see the other less-crowded sections of the Wall for a deeper Wall experience.

I do not usually listen to music a lot when I travel but on that day, I felt the need to plug my earphones in my ears. Dusun songs were playing…and my mind started to fly far, far away from where I was at…then at one point, I saw most of the passengers had that ‘WOW’ expression on their faces…I turned my head and looked out of the train window, and there, in the distance, was the jaw-dropping Badaling Great Wall circling the mountain like an anaconda. At that very point, the song Urang Bilang by Freddy K was playing…3 years have passed..memories of the trip are becoming vague…but everytime I hear the song, my mind flies back to that day, on that crowded train, when I turned my head, set eyes on the beyond-words-beautiful Great Wall of China, and was reminded of ‘life is beautiful’.

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Day hike from Simatai to Jinshanling sections. Pretty challenging but absolutely rewarding!

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Hiking the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Emmmm…that medal…I bought it LOL! CNY10, if my memory doesn’t betray me.

What it Means to Me

I was chatting with a colleague the other day. She is as passionate about travel as I am. We were sharing some of our travel experiences that day. At the end of our chat, she suggested that I should start a travel blog. About 5 years ago, I thought about starting such a blog…but the thought died with the ticking of time. Her suggestion re-ignited the spark in me to share what travel means to me, what travel has taught me, how travel is the engagement of one’s senses.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Ollantaytambo, Peru

…that is how this blog came to be…when I was younger, I dreamed about becoming a travel writer. So perhaps I can treat this blog as a tool to see that dream come true…my friends, this blog, Fernweh, is about the very thing that makes me feel so alive: TRAVEL, the wonderful art of seeing and understanding the world. As pointed out beautifully by Hans Christian Andersen, to travel is to live. Salute to that!

PS Fernweh is a German word that means an ache to get away and travel to a distant place, a feeling even stronger than wanderlust. Beautiful word, yes? 🙂