Montañita, September 1, 2016
I woke up around 5 PM, my entire body feeling like I had been beaten with a club. I had spent the last few hours sleeping on and off, in between waking and throwing all the covers off because of my high fever, then waking up again freezing to try and drag them back over myself. I let out a weakened shriek— my cabana was full of people. A moment later I realized the ‘people’ were just my open laptop screen with Netflix playing. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew this was a problem— hallucinations are never a good symptom of any sickness. I was .5 miles away from the main road where I could grab a taxi to the hospital, and I could barely sit up in bed. My fever was high, I registered in a distant way, it even hurt to move my eyes.
Facebook chimed— my friend Stephanie had just gotten back to town and wanted to know what I was up to. I reached one hand outside of my sleeping bag, attempting to respond single handedly so as little skin as possible would be exposed to the cold air. I told her how sick I was, and within 10 minutes she was outside my hostel in a cab, asking me what she could do, and we were soon speeding down the road to the hospital in the next town, Manglaralto, a quick 5 minutes away.
The hospital was a modest white concrete building in front of the beach, the sound of the waves a distant background noise. As soon as we entered the hospital a group of white-clad ladies directed me to one of the empty beds in the small room. A nurse came over to take my vitals, and told me they wanted to hook me up to a saline drip. Since the hospital is free, any additional expense or needed medication can be purchased from the pharmacy next door. They wrote me up a lab slip while Stephanie ran next door to buy me an IV, and the doctor tore the slip off a pad of paper and handed it to me. “El laboratorio es de dos esquinas hacia abajo desde el hospital.” The laboratory was next to the hospital, and the blood test would cost $5— there they would test me for Typhoid and Dengue fever.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
Snarling. Dogs barking in the distance. The sound of plastic crinkling outside. Something being dragged away, outside.
I woke up with a sharp intake of breath— listening. My body cocooned in my sleeping bag, I waited, my neck hurting from holding my head so still outside my sleeping bag.
I was wild camping in the back of a cabbage field in Kosovo. The pale light coming through my tent cover meant it was early morning, probably around 6. I had been biking through Kosovo the day before, a panorama of snow capped mountains in the distance while I cycled through a lush valley following the road through tiny villages and farms. It was getting dark, and the towns were so small there wasn’t any option but to find a good spot on the side of the road to sleep. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, I turned my bike down deeply rutted dirt road following a stream lined by small farms and sparse trees. The trees got thicker and the road narrower and wilder, and I stopped at the most inconspicuous spot I could find— the back of a cabbage field that backed up into a small copse of trees next to the river. I tucked my bike into the trees as best I could, and got out my tattered sleeping mat (which was essentially a thick piece of foam a Couchsurfer had given me in the South of France). I crouched on the sleeping pad, making dinner as dusk fell, waiting for darkness to set up camp.
When it was sufficiently dark I began the process of setting up camp, with the comforting feeling of regularity— doing something I had done hundreds of times before, making the small patch of earth in the back of a cabbage field home for the night. All of a sudden, flashlights swept across the copse of trees where I was now crouched, frozen. The road I thought had petered out into nothing turnout out to be a pedestrian thoroughfare in the evening for fisherman hanging out at a bridge I hadn’t noticed just across the road. I let out the breath I had been holding as the flashlight wielding group continued past.
I quietly unzipped my tent and crawled inside, and slept the deep sleep of a cyclist crossing countries, and woke up to the sound of barking dogs outside. There was something walking around the tent.
* * *
Montañita, September 1, 2016
The laboratory was a simple concrete room with a wooden bench sitting against one wall and a chair opposite, a small table with needles and cotton balls sitting next to it. A young boy cleaned my arm, and took the smoothest blood sample I’ve ever had taken. “Treinta minutos, y cinco dollars.” In 30 minutes I could go back and pick up my blood test, and it was $5.
We walked back to the hospital and they hooked me up to an IV via a 3″ needle into the top of my hand, and I sat for the next few hours with a bag of saline attached to my arm— the nurse coming back twice to give me an antibiotic. Lying on the bed for hours was punctuated by a bathroom run in which I held my saline bag in one hand and proceeded to get violently ill.
When I got back, Stephanie had gone to pick up the results of my test next door, and I pitifully tried to put on my jacket while attached to the IV. An older woman came over, told me to lie down so the saline drip would be faster, and tied my coat around me “como una bufanda!” she laughed (like a scarf).
Stephanie returned— my test results were negative. I had an infection, but it wasn’t Typhoid.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
The dogs were going wild in the distance, snarling and barking back and forth. I couldn’t see outside with the tent cover on, but I could hear something snorting and grunting just outside. Wild pigs? I had heard stories from other cyclists there were wolves in this region, and many stray dogs would form packs.
Snorting, shuffling, and then— the rustle of a plastic bag right in front of my tent. I slowly sat up, lowered myself to the floor of the tent, and delivered a swift punch through the thin wall of the tent where the creature was outside. A loud yelp emitted, and I heard it scamper away. Dogs, I thought.
I unzipped the front of the tent, and saw a dog running off to join two other dogs in the distance. I stretched, admiring the rows of cabbage stretching out before me, the misty clouds rolling over the top of mountains in the distance. The first rays of the sun glittered over the mountain, illuminating my tent. I quickly packed, and cycled back down the dirt road, like I had never been there at all.
* * *
Life is a series of risks— we never know when a serious illness might be Malaria or Typhoid, or when a group of wild dogs might be extremely aggressive and hungry. All we can do is take every precaution we can, never confuse our casual feelings with mindful deliberation, think critically about our decisions and the potential consequences, and when those days of suffering and hardship come, punch that wild dog in the face if necessary or have abuela help with the coat.
The best lessons are learned through hardship, through not knowing what lies around the bend in the road, through a journey not entirely planned and mapped out. The unknown is where we’re tested, where we’re forced to rely on others and ourselves, where we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations so we can come out the other side changed in some way, seeing the world illuminated in a new, pale light.
* * *
Montañita, September 8, 2016
Just a week after my visit to the hospital in Manglaralto, I decided to leave Montañita. Staying on the coast of Ecuador was a wonderful period in my life, concentrating on bettering my Spanish and surfing, meeting new people and exploring the beaches of Ecuador. Now, it felt right to leave, like my time there was over and I needed to move on. I messaged the caretaker of my cabana that I’d be leaving a few weeks early, bought a bus ticket to Guayaquil where I’d then grab the bus to Baños, and started frantically packing to leave the next morning.
* * *
I stepped of the bus from Montañita in Guayaquil, and grabbed my pack from underneath. I hauled it onto my back, and set about finding a bus to Baños. I stopped at 3 stations, each telling me they had direct buses then explaining a city I’d have to stop over at. All of a sudden three guys started shouting at me 20 feet away. “A Banos? A Banos! Cinco minutos!” They wrote a sign in sharpie, “Banos. Directo,” and started waving it around at me. I hurried over, and bought a ticket for a bus leaving in 5 minutes. I had just enough time to throw my pack under the bus and run to grab a hamburger, leaping onto the bus stairs as it was pulling away from the curb. Feeling like I had just won some prize, I found a window seat and celebrated— hamburger in one hand, bus ticket to Baños in the other. I was on my way. I didn’t know what I would find there, or where I would go next, but experience is the daughter of adventure and I had my ticket to ride all the way there, directly.
The cab raced through the darkened streets, pausing only now and again to roll one way or the other to avoid a pot hole or swing around a traffic circle. It was 2 AM, and almost every storefront lining the street was dark, their metaled and graffitied doors closed until the next morning. All of a sudden, we were pulling up to a brightly colored wall with the word ‘Mogi’s’ painted on it, and before I knew it, my bags were at front of the door and the cab pulling away.
My stomach twisted as I thought about what I would do if no one answered the door in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the middle of the night, when a second later the door opened and a teenager appeared.
“We are waiting for you!” he exclaimed, and grabbed one of my bags and gestured inside.
Minutes later, I was brushing my teeth in what was arguably one of the dirtiest bathrooms I’ve ever been in. I had set my duffel on the floor before I switched on the light (rookie mistake) and had set my bag in a puddle of what I desperately hoped was shower runoff instead of pee. I grinned— it was good to be on the road again, that familiar feeling of traveling all night, and having to deal with unexpected. It was going to be a great two months.
* * *
Risk is a tricky word— it’s associated with those considered wonderfully cool in our culture, Alex Honnold types who defy convention and prove how spectacularly awesome they are. It’s also used to describe people we deem as inexperienced when they make decisions we don’t agree with. Experience and culture largely decide which side of risk a person falls, but ultimately, risk is an inherently personal decision, the only constant being that if we are not taking risks, we are not learning.
To paraphrase JFK, “We do (these) things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Everyone has their own risk thresh-hold to cultivate— for some it might being going to the movies alone, taking a new class at school or even ending a relationship, for others, it might be scaling a mountains, or night diving off some extraordinary coast. One of the most common questions people ask me when I travel is, “Are you afraid to travel alone?” and ultimately, “Isn’t what you’re doing risky?”. If some small part of me isn’t afraid, I’m probably not taking enough risk— it’s my way of gauging how much I’m learning and growing every day.
* * *
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, home to over 2.5 million people, located on the Guayas River. The city existed as a native village before it was ‘founded’ in 1538 by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana. I was overwhelmed at first by the city, a bustling metropolis with terrible traffic and even crazier buses. Once I had learned the art of flagging down the local bus (since I look like I don’t belong in a suburb of Ecuador, it took some extra effort) and learned the art of hopping onto a moving bus, I handed the guy next to the driver 25 cents, and hung on as the bus careened around the city, jumping out at the main bus terminal. From there I bought a metro card and hopped on another bus, counting the stops to downtown, and barely made it out of the packed bus doors before they closed.
I spent two days in Guayaquil, taking the double buses downtown and exploring the city during the day, climbing ‘Las Penas”(444 steps to a famous lighthouse and overlook— the best spot in the city to see the sunset) and drinking coffee on the Boardwalk running along the Guayas river.
On the third morning, I flagged down a taxi, and shelled out the extra $3 for a taxi ride to the main bus terminal instead of taking the bus. The bus terminal in Guayaquil is more like a market than a terminal. The gates are tucked into corners, and I would have spent a lot of time wandering around the massive complex if I hadn’t asked and found out the bus to Montañita was in a tiny corner on third floor. At 9 AM, I threw my rucksack into the underbelly of a massive touring bus, hopped in seat 36, and was on the way to my new home.
* * *
Arriving on Montañita was the oddest feeling. This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere with the intention of staying in one place for a significant amount of time— stepping off the bus onto the dirt road held more importance than I normally would have given it.
As the driver pulled bags out of the cavern underneath the bus, I noticed a small river heading out underneath a bridge to the ocean, just across the street. Bouncing music was playing somewhere in the distance, and bright umbrellas lined the horizon.
A woman with a Scottish accent walked up to me, “Do you need accommodation? I’m from Hidden House Hostel just down the street, and we offer dorm beds and camping.”
Ten minutes later I was setting up camp on the sand, fifteen feet away from an iguana and twenty feet away from a bar that served 16 oz dollar beers. I spent the next few days wandering the town and meeting other travelers from all over the world, and the nights hanging out at the hostel (usually in a hammock) drinking cheap beer.
* * *
At the end of the weekend I moved into my cabana, a beautiful space up the road called”Pachamar”, located down a small side street. A longboard sporting the name hung off a bamboo fence in front of the cabana, with two gates closed with a padlock. There I met Dany, the caretaker of the property, where he gave me the keys and showed me around the small kitchen and house. I was home.
The next week went by equally fast and slow— I started classes at Montañita Spanish School, a .5 mile walk from my cabana, up a steep set of steps off the main road of town. Now every morning, I stop by the same breakfast stall for fresh juice run by a young couple on ‘breakfast alley’ in the town, staples of which include Nutella crepes, and the most enormous fruit salads one can possibly imagine. I walk up the steep steps to school, where I have class from 10-12, grab a quick lunch from breakfast alley (go figure), surf from 1-3, and rush back to class from 3-5. Nights have been a combination of working late into the night at my cabana, chatting with friends on Skype, going out into town, or events with the school. It’s a lot of mental and physical work, and every night I’m exhausted— but the kind of exhaustion that comes with learning and change.
* * *
Life changes are all encompassing, blanketing everything in risk. If I didn’t take this risk, I wouldn’t know the taste of ceviche with my feet in the water in Montañita, or finally improving my Spanish after years of talking about doing so. My first day in Guayaquil was overwhelming, standing in the middle of the street trying to remember useful Spanish phrases, feeling like an idiot while people honked at me, feeling even more an idiot trying to figure out the metro card machine trying to get downtown— but success is 95% failure, and I’m embracing it.
Every adventure traveler has their own red-point for cleanliness— as a conversation starter, I like to ask this of fellow backpackers. Last week a guy in Ecuador told me his is taking a shower every day, he doesn’t care where he’s staying or if his clothes are clean, but he needs to bathe at the end of the day. Alternatively, I need to wash my hair at least every other day on the road— no matter how dirty I am, as long as my hair is clean I feel like a human.
Last year on my cycling trip across Europe, during the most extreme dirtbag expedition of my life so far, I went for days without showering (maxing out at 7 days), washing my hair at gas stations and in livestock troughs across the countryside. Unfortunately, after cycling 70+ miles every day, bathing my body as well as my hair became a necessity— as a solo female traveler wild camping, that was a much more difficult feat.
I recently received a box of Epic Wipes in the mail, and the perfect setup was born. I could wash my hair in streams every other day, and in the privacy of my own tent take a ‘shower’ with an Epic Wipe.
Epic Wipes are essentially massive baby wipes, they’re towel sized, made of biodegradable material (100% bamboo fiber), paraben and toxic free, and have a great, fresh pine scent (which I’m not sure is intentional, since they’re naturally scented, but either way they smell amazing).
I also found they’re great to dry out after use and tear into quarters for cleaning bike chains, to use as kleenex, or camp cleanup (after rinsing it out a bit post shower of course).
Since my Epic Wipe revelation, I keep one in my pack even on day trips and they’ve become a gear staple. Thanks Epic Wipes for helping all us adventurers do the things we love without the smell.
Cape Town 2012
There’s a certain spot in Cape Town where the road suddenly dips and there she is— the Mother City spread like a carpet to the sea, Table Mountain looming in darkness and the city aglitter.
In October 2012, I crested that hill for the first time, windows down and the summer breeze tangling my dusty hair. Just a few moments earlier I was exhausted from the long flight from Dakar, but after seeing Cape Town at night I wasn’t tired anymore.
Ten minutes later the taxi pulled up in front of my hostel, a sprawling building on a hill underneath the shadow of Lion’s Head mountain. I hauled my backpack and duffel out of the back of the taxi, paid the driver, and was buzzed in through the front gate into a crowded scene. To the right was an elevated patio complete with a pool table and crowd, beer bottles perched on ledges and flying cue sticks. Behind a long wall of glass there was a bar with sofas and armchairs where people were perched watching a rugby game while drinking Savannah and playing cards.
I dropped my bags in front of the reception— it was so late the desk was no longer open, and the security guard was struggling to find the key to the 4-bed dorm I was staying in that night. While I stood there, planning on getting a shower and feeling awkward in the crowd, a tall guy with a huge smile and a Zulu accent walked up to me. “Hey, want to come out with us tonight?”
His name was Lucas, and he was the bartender at the hostel. He had a slow, almost lazy drawl to his voice, like he was never in a hurry. He slowly scanned the room in that laid back way I would come to associate with Lucas, before coming back to me standing there in my harem pants and filthy tank top. “Let’s do it,” I said, grinning. When the guard came back with the key, I tossed my bags in the room, and joined the group heading out on the town.
It was the first of many nights out in Cape Town, but I vividly remember that first one. It was the first night in a long time I felt I was in a place where I belonged.
* * *
Loneliness and solitude are often present together, but they are not the same. Humans need communities and a sense of belonging, but not all of us can find that in an established society. Some of us find these things on the road, with people we don’t know well in wild places. We test our limits, find our very basic needs, and come to realize who we are when we’re forced to rely on no one but ourselves.
To live a nomadic life is to come to terms with loneliness, as well as solitude— it’s a lifestyle of being alone. It’s wildly exciting and difficult, it’s the decision to pursue a life of curiosity, to not see family and old friends for long periods of time, and be comfortable living in the realm of the constant unknown.
I’ve been living life as a nomad for the past 5 years now, stopping occasionally to work before heading out on another adventure. Being a nomad is something I think constantly about, what it means, what I’m giving up, and who I want to be as a person. When I first left the American workforce to try an alternative lifestyle in 2012, being a nomad was a new and novel idea— and while I was very aware of what I was leaving back in the states, I was new to what I would be giving up on the road.
When constantly evolving and learning and leaving, there are many beginnings, but endings become fewer. Less people become good friends, more people become acquaintances. I no longer feel the need to actively trade Facebook info or emails, because I’ve realized most people and moments are fleeting— but I appreciate them more as I recognize this. I’ve learned to chase after opportunities and experiences and love, and live in these moments— all while realizing they most likely won’t come again.
* * *
Cape Town 2012
The next few months were a blur of meeting new people every day, of hanging out with fellow travelers and my friend Lucas at the bar every night, and taking trips to other cities in-between.
Every time I came back to Cape Town, Lucas would be at that bar. I’d ask for a beer and about whatever music was playing and what was going on that night. He’d give me a hard time in that drawling voice about how I’d never find whatever music he was playing, because it was a rare song or a local group. We’d go out to whatever place was popular or had something going on that night, whether it was dollar shots or a great DJ or club.
When I moved into my apartment in Cape Town with my two roommates, Lucas showed up with pounds of Boerewors and pork for a Braai (a South African BBQ)— a Braai we had to have indoors because we didn’t have a patio or balcony. I still remember him in that tiny kitchen over a frying pan cooking up all that meat with a beer in his hand.
One night, hanging out at the hostel, Lucas played an intense song I’d never heard before— Asaf Avidan’s Reckoning Song, a piano version.
“Lucas,” I said, “this song is seriously amazing.”
“You’ll never find it,” he told me. “It’s a rare version.”
It was such a small moment in time, Lucas cleaning up the bar, while I sat there drinking a Savannah, listening to this song about lost moments. It was so simple, such an inconsequential moment, much like any of the moments I’ve had on the road with people I’ve met— but I think about that one particular night often, hanging out on a sofa drinking a cider in Cape Town— Lucas would play that song, and I’d think about my life and how I wanted it to be.
* * *
When we choose to move on, we always leave something behind. Unfortunately, because of the physicality of this world, we often think leaving something behind is as simple as forgetting a sweater in the park— something tangible that can be retrieved at a later date. When we leave a place or a person behind, that leaving forever alters that person and that place by our not being there. Then other people will come, and change them, so when we return it’s no longer the same as the moment we left.
This is the single, most important lesson I’ve learned from my nomadic life. It’s both the most beautiful and profoundly sad thing I’ve ever realized. It’s made me see the weight of my decisions and the value of people in my life, and made me think actively about what people I want in my life for more than just fleeting moments and beginnings.
We’re not always in charge of those decisions ourselves. Sometimes, life makes them for us.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I saw a post from a South African friend on Facebook — one of her friends had passed away suddenly. It was Lucas. I checked my messages, and re-read the last one he had sent me. I couldn’t reconcile that last message and the Facebook post. Lucas was in Cape Town. He was there, like he had been every time I had come back before. He’d be at that bar, I’d ask for a beer, and we’d listen to music and talk about whatever.
But Lucas wasn’t there. He was traveling with his girlfriend in Kenya, where he contracted meningitis and suddenly passed away. He was also pursuing life, with someone he loved, in an unknown wild place. My expectation of him being in Cape Town is just a memory frozen in time, of the person he was when we were both in South Africa— a beautiful moment that ended as soon as I left.
* * *
Nomadic life is hard. It’s not all idyllic sunsets and adventure and surfing on some exotic beach. It’s solitary, sometimes lonely. It’s about leaving things behind, it’s about trying to find where we belong in a world of tiny exquisite things and realizing those significantly insignificant moments create a bigger life. My time here is fleeting, and the people and places I meet along the way forever change me.
This lifestyle is about running toward something— toward belonging, toward understanding, toward knowledge or adventure. I’ve never regretted my decision to hit the road— I just never realized until recently some places can’t be gone back to. I wasn’t acquainted with that delicate, empty space where things once stood that could never be again. I am now.
What we do with time, how we use it to shape and change the people and places around us is a uniquely personal decision. Time is the greatest commodity we have as humans, our fragile existence circling the sun at the same speed, every day, under a smattering of distant, glittering stars.
For the last 333 days, I’ve been hunkered down in Baltimore, USA, after falling into a full-time job by accident. I wasn’t looking for anything permanent, just something temporary to make some money while I was in town last year for my sister’s wedding.
“We have an opening at Under Armour for an Interactive Designer, if that’s something you’re interested in,” the headhunter said breezily, passing me some forms to fill out. “It’s longer than a few weeks, it’s a four month temporary position, but if you’re willing to stay it might be a great fit.” I was seated at a long conference table in a spacious office with enormous floor to ceiling windows, on the 28th floor overlooking downtown Baltimore. The building itself had 8 elevators and a no-nonsense security guard stationed at an impressive looking desk overlooking the lobby.
After eight wonderful, adventurous months of sleeping in bunk beds and tents in developing countries, more often than not going without air-conditioning and commuting everywhere by foot or local bus, the office felt more like something Dani of 5 years ago would have enjoyed.
In 2008, I graduated college at the height of the economic crisis, when many of my classmates went on to grad school instead of the working world. My sister was getting ready to move to South Korea to teach English, and my dream was to wear a suit and heels, working as a designer at Under Armour or Kate Spade. I hadn’t yet realized what a lone ranger I really was, my need to work on something personally fulfilling, or my love for constant upheaval. I was young and ambitious, and the world was full of possibilities. After a year and a half of making great money working as a freelancer for private agencies and a lacrosse magazine in Baltimore, I landed an amazing job working as a videographer for an international non-profit in DC, whose mission was research focusing on poverty and malnutrition in developing countries. When I initially got the call back from the woman who interviewed me, she said they had filled the design position, but since I had showed her my video work, would I be interested in the video position opening soon?
I was there for only a few weeks before they flew me to Dakar, Senegal for ten days, and I fell in love with Africa. I learned enough conversational French to have broken conversations with cab drivers, and stayed up all night with friends I had met there, exploring the city after work. Several months later I made my second trip, to India, where I worked on a major international conference, managing a team of local photographers and videographers, staying up all night for days editing and uploading video and directing event staff to one conference room or the other. I loved it. It was the first thing I had done in a long time that made me feel 100%, completely alive. I was sleep deprived and overwhelmed at times, but everywhere I went there were interesting people to talk to and something new to see. I loved the people, and the markets. I loved the chaos and the traffic and the clotheslines hung at the construction sites where the families of the workers resided. I loved staying out all night with locals I had met through the conference, sipping Budweiser in bars that could have been anywhere in the world, save the robust crowd of young Indian men and women. I loved the dust that coated my feet and made the tub black at the end of the night, but most of all, I loved how for the first time in my life, I felt content with who I was.
I realized at some point in India, my stateside life was meant to take another direction than the one it was going. Those two weeks in India made me question in my very soul what it was I wanted, and I realized it wasn’t the life I had been living. The night I arrived back in Baltimore, I broke up with my live-in boyfriend of six years with whom I owned a house. At that moment, I shattered the life I had known for the past six years. I shattered the world I had created and worked for in my early twenties, everything I thought I had wanted. My family was crushed, my friends non-existent— I had spent the last six years working on my career, renovating a house, and being a girlfriend. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was 25 years old.
Back inside the headhunter’s office in Baltimore, I thought about the Under Armour position. I wondered if staying in my hometown for four months was something I actually wanted to do. I had been in town for months already, and was ready to get out and hit the road. I had planned to spend the next year on a vintage motorcycle, traveling from Baltimore all the way down to the tip of Chile, finally becoming fluent in Spanish and fulfilling my dream of exploring South America and getting to see Antarctica, all in one go.
Under Armour is an American sports performance apparel company started in Baltimore by University of Maryland athlete Kevin Plank. Every Baltimorean and Marylander knows of, and usually sports, Under Armour apparel for local pride. It’s somewhat of a local legend, a David and Goliath story of the underdog Kevin Plank, who came up with the idea of a material that wicks sweat and took on giants like Nike and Adidas who had already cornered the market on sports apparel. Under Armour became a smashing success, and in its short 18 year existence, is now a 2.3 billion dollar company, featuring athletes from world champion skier Lindsey Vonn and football player Tom Brady, to new additions like surfer Brianna Cope and ballerina Misty Copeland.
The 2008 recent graduate Dani would have leapt at the opportunity to work at such a prestigious local company, but the Dani of August 2013 wasn’t so sure. I had spent the past year and a half traveling internationally. I had trekked across the northern mountains of Ethiopia, and explored the markets in rural Senegal. I had lived in Cape Town, camped with elephants in Botswana, swam in Victoria Falls, and hiked a section of the AT. I had slept in tents, eaten caterpillars, seen insects the size of my fist, and made more connections and friends than I had at any other time in my life. I learned what was important to me, what kind of person I was and who I wanted to be, and, more importantly, what I wanted out of my life. I didn’t envision myself taking a 9-5 office job ever again, but here I was at a crossroads, with the life I wanted on one side and the job I had always dreamed of on the other.
But life isn’t so black and white. Sometimes creating opportunities is the humility to accept we don’t know what life is going to hand us, and turning down an amazing job offered so readily can be foolish and naïve— I didn’t know where this path could take me. I believe opportunities arise for a reason, and a job offer from Under Armour from 5 years ago would have been a dream come true. I felt that now, this job being handed me so readily, was no coincidence. I stopped contemplating my doubts, and started filling out the forms. “I’ll take it,” I said.
On August 22nd 2013, I made the shift from a duffel toting adventurer to a ‘professional’ with an office job, trading my cutoffs and surfing shirts to jeans and more office-appropriate tops. The culture change was swift. My days went from traveling, writing, and climbing, to meetings and colleagues and microwaving leftovers in the community kitchen. I re-learned team-oriented phrases like ‘team-huddle’ and ‘morning standup’. The day before I started, I dyed half my hair a bright, vibrant yellow and sea-green. I would be a professional, I would do a great job, but I would be defiant in my transition.
It had been 2 years since I left India and broke up with my long-term boyfriend. It was 2012, and I had continued working as a videographer in DC for another 2 years. It was springtime, and I had begun to feel the familiar pull of discontent, the desire to do more. I had done a lot in that time, I had traveled to Indonesia and Nigeria and Lebanon. I traveled to Ghana and interviewed John Kufuor, the former president. I shot video of mango farms in rural Senegal, and had met people from all over the world and learned about land grabs and GMOs and droughts in Somalia. I had had lovers in almost every city I visited, and many, many more friends. I knew what it was like to cruise around the streets of Beirut at 3 AM. I knew the sound of the waves against the shore in the famous fishing village of Toubab in Dakar, Senegal, and how it felt to drink a beer on the beach in Bali at sunset. I would always recall the stark outline of the machine gun laden guards in Nigeria, stationed in every taxi and outside every building. I loved my job, but my manager with whom had shared my vision and helped me build the video department had retired. I was proud of the work I had done, and what I had learned in that time— but I was ready to take another leap and work on my own projects. I wanted to see if I could make it on my own, to travel indefinitely and do freelance work as I traveled. What I loved most about my job was traveling to developing countries, where I’d spend days out in the field shooting video and meeting locals. It was an entirely different lifestyle and I wanted to completely immerse myself in it, not just spend two weeks at a time in the field and three months back in DC in an office.
I am humble enough to know how privileged I am to have been born in a middle class Western family, with the opportunities to do what I want without social, economic, or cultural restrictions. Looking back on my life when I first graduated college makes me realize even more so how important it is to chase your aspirations, how change is vitally important (no matter how difficult), and how humility can create opportunities. Leaving my long-term boyfriend post-India was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. Quitting my job as a videographer was difficult, but easier, knowing how change brings more experiences, and knowledge, and people into my life. So June of 2012, I decided to sell my house, quit my job, and travel the world. I was 27.
At Under Armour I began to learn about performance apparel and web e-commerce and other nonsensical-sounding things that ultimately have wonderfully practical applications. I made inspired notes in my moleskin constantly at work, brainstorming blog ideas and projects but, working full time left me very little time to implement them. I embraced the idea that I would learn a lot from this job, and there was purpose to it, and would ultimately take what I had learned on the road at some future point.
4 months passed in a quick blur of long busy days and climbing nights, and my contract was extended indefinitely. Around Christmas, one of the designers left for another job, and my manager offered me a full-time position with health insurance, a bonus, and stock options. The old Dani shivered in excitement, while the new Dani considered her options, the opportunity it provided, and accepted.
I’ve learned a lot over the past 333 days in Baltimore. I’ve made some amazing friends, and have become part of a fantastic climbing community. My sister got married, and my brother was accepted into the Peace Corps and moved to Georgia, fulfilling one of his dreams. I fell in love for the first time, only to watch it crash and burn months later. Several family members passed on, and several friends were married and started their lives again with a different identity, as a husband or wife. The tides have moved in and out and the sun has risen each day and I’ve watched it all with the knowledge I can do what I want and will be fulfilled because of this. Life is beautiful and sad and difficult, but if we face it bravely and openly and honestly, we can be and do anything.
On some mornings, the wind will shift as I walk across the street by the water where my office is, and on it I’ll smell the spice of a market in Africa, or the smell of the ocean on the Cape of Good Hope. And I’ll smile to myself, and my heart will say— soon. I am 29.
One of the challenges of backpacking in developing countries is land transportation— knowing what’s safe, what’s reliable, and how it varies from country to country— even city to city. One of these best things about adventure travel is learning how to let go of all assumptions, taking calculated risks, and realizing all the discoveries you’ve make by being open to the experiences and people around you.
Let this guide be your go-to for all land transport in developing countries and rural areas. Adventure on!
Taxis are typically the most expensive way to get around, but also one of the easiest from main transportation hubs (think airports, bus stations). They can also be unsafe if unprepared— always ask or research beforehand what the reputable taxi companies are. If you’re in a really rural area with limited options, make a calculated guess based on initial conversations, and always sit in the backseat with your luggage.
If you’re at an airport, ask at an information/company desk which taxi service is the best at the airport (preferably ask a woman), or research the area beforehand and ask your hotel/hostel which taxi service they recommend. They might recommend pre-arranged transport if taxis aren’t safe in the area, either way, you’ll know more info about the area when you arrive and can make an informed decision.
Think about whether you want your bags next to you, or in the trunk. I keep all my equipment (camera, laptop, phone, passport, money etc.) in one backpack which is always with me, and my duffel of clothes go in the trunk. If in a metropolitan area with a lot of people/vendors around the taxi, keep the windows rolled up so someone passing by can’t reach in and grab your bags.
Have exact change, and always agree on the price beforehand— your negotiating power is lost once you hand over your bags or get in the car. Know what’s a fair price by researching beforehand. Don’t go with a driver who is obviously trying to rip you off, keep repeating the price until they negotiate with you, or walk away and find another driver. Simultaneously, don’t get in a taxi with a fellow traveler who is trying to rip off driver off— spare yourself some grief and venture on solo.
2. Mini Buses (Inter-city transport)
I’m a huge fan of the mini bus— they’re packed, stuffy, and hot, but you’ll never meet so many locals and hear as many stories in such a short period of time. Some cities are safer to travel in local mini buses than others (you don’t want to be in a traffic accident in one of these), and they’re always called something different depending on the city. In Senegal they’re referred to as ‘rapides’, in The Republic of Georgia they’re called ‘marshrutkas’, in Peru they’re called ‘micros’, and so on.
From your hostel/hotel, have the receptionist write down your destination on a piece of paper in the local language/characters. Ask him/her about the best way to navigate to the minibus station, the phonetic spelling of the station itself (and even the phonetic spelling of the destination). Once you have these written down, you’re golden. (If you like to be even more prepared, ask them to write down the phrase “Where is the bus/marshuka/station?” in the local language/characters. That way, if someone doesn’t understand your accent, you can show them this piece of paper and they can direct you. It’s ridiculously easy, and I’ve navigated many cities this way, picking up conversational phrases by asking locals for directions, and meeting all kinds of people using local transport.
Watch your things. Don’t leave your passport or any valuable items in back pockets of jeans or backpacks where someone might easily grab them in a crowded space. Wear your backpack backwards, and if you have to throw a bigger piece of luggage on the roof or in the back, make sure everything of value will be carried on you in your backpack. Most people won’t try to steal your things, but for the small percentage that might, don’t make yourself an easy target and you won’t have any issues.
Mini Buses are usually very, very cheap, although sometimes as a tourist, you’ll be charged the ‘tourist rate’ instead of the local rate. I’ve been with travelers who take offense at this, but the fare is usually so cheap I’m generally happy to put a little more money into the economy with the small amount I tend to spend in developing areas.
3. Buses (Long Distance Touring Buses)
Buying a bus ticket in a developing country, particularly in Africa, means nothing more than you and your luggage will be traveling on a bus— it does not mean you have a reserved seat. People will crowd around the bus door pushing and shoving to make their way onto a crowded bus to find the last available seats— everyone else will be standing the several hour+ journey. There will be livestock, lots of meals eaten in laps, and it’s going to be hot— but it will be an adventure!
Have your luggage ready to be crammed into one of the luggage spaces below the bus, and jump into the human pile or be left standing in the aisle.
Buses are usually very cheap depending on where you are. If your destination happens to be more touristy (South-East Asia as opposed to rural Africa) there might be nicer options for a higher cost, which might be worth it for a reserved seat on a long journey.
Rickshaws are the most exhilarating form of transport— there’s nothing like speeding through a city on the back of a bicycle, or part motorcycle, the wind streaming through your hair and being completely exposed to the elements. They’re also the trickiest form of transportation in terms of price negotiation and safety. One memorable rickshaw ride in Delhi (called ‘autos’ in the city) the driver stopped the auto and asked if I minded giving an elderly woman a lift home as well, which of course, I didn’t mind at all.
I highly recommend all rickshaw rides, just make sure to negotiate and be aware of your surroundings. At night in many cities traveling solo, I might shell out the extra money for a verified taxi and forgo the rickshaw or minibus— but it really depends on where you are and who you’re with.
Rickshaws are usually very, very cheap, one of the cheapest forms of transportation you’ll find in developing countries, and are great for shorter distances in cities that don’t require a taxi. Make sure the driver is aware of the destination, and you have agreed upon a price before getting into the rickshaw.
Be as prepared as you can, along with being open to new experiences, and you’ll be safe and have some great adventures on the road.
One of the biggest challenges on any trip when there’s equipment involved is “how do I get it there?” Exactly one year ago, before starting my cycling trip across Europe, I was asking myself the same question. I assumed at first I would just ship my bike from the US to Portugal, pick it up in-country, and head off from there. I called freight companies and airlines, did a ridiculous amount of research, and here is what I’ve learned over the past year on packaging and shipping bicycles.
Assembling my bike in the Lisbon airport. (Note the other bike enthusiasts who keep popping up to see what's going on.) Want a breakdown of how to ship a bike around the world? Link on my profile. #neverstopexploring #bikepacking #cycling #travel #adventure #wanderlust #sleepinthedirt #bikelife #bicycletouring #biketouring #natgeooutdoors #gopro #goprotravel #traveltheworld #goprooftheday #goprohero3 #biketrip #explore #goatworthy #travelblog #explorer #solotravel #nomad #natgeocreative #natgeotravelpic #nationalgeographic #adventurecycling #rei1440project #adventurecycling #bikingadventures
On big international flights, always package your bike in a box. Not just any box, a standard bike box complete with carrying handles. Your local bike shop (or REI) will have these in stock for you to purchase OR they will package your bike for you. A lot more goes into packing a bike than simply putting it in a box. On my Europe trip, I had my local REI package and box my bike for $100, and it was completely worth it. It was my first bike trip, and I was able to I ask a million questions of the guys and gals working in the bike shop (creepily hanging around the local REI for hours at a time).
There are also ‘bike bags’, which are essentially huge thick plastic bags that fit over a bicycle, but I wouldn’t recommend these for anything but small, local flights where there’s a minimal amount of luggage and you have a good chance of your bike being handled with care.
When I arrived back in the states from the Republic of Georgia, I found that security had opened my carefully packed bike box, unpacked my bike, and thrown it back in the box without any of the padding. Luckily, it wasn’t damaged. All I had to package my bike with in Tbilisi were extra clothes and crappy packaging tape, which made it easy for security to pull it off my bike. There’s no guarantee, but at least with a bike that’s heavily taped and packaged, it won’t make it easy on security to unwrap it and toss it around.
It is ridiculously cheap to check your bike as oversized luggage. Every airline is a little different in requirements and cost, but essentially, it’s cheap and as long as your bike is in a bike box, you’ll be fine. I flew out on Jet Blu and Royal Moroccan Airways, and it only cost me $50 to check my bike as oversized luggage. Just Google your airline + oversized baggage and you’ll get a list of the equipment and fees.
It is not cheap to ship anything international. Not to mention the nightmare of dealing with customs, and trying to get to that location from the airport while sleep deprived in another country. That said, if you need to ship your bike within Europe or the United States, it will be relatively easy and fairly inexpensive (compared to international freight).
Packing Your Bike
Whether you’re having a bike shop pack your bike or doing it yourself, here’s a list of the main components that need to be disassembled and protected.
The Derailleur. When packing your bike, the most important thing to protect is the derailleur. Do this by wrapping it in soft padding, then taping cardboard around it. I’ve also used half a water bottle (cut the bottle in half, slide it over the derailleur, and tape in place). Wrap this in cardboard as well.
Front Wheel. Take the front wheel off, wrap it in padding, and tape it to the frame of the bike in front of the derailleur as extra protection (after all the below steps are take).
The handlebars. Loosen the hex bolts on the handlebar brackets, then remove. Tape handlebars vertically to the frame of the bike, so the frame will fit in the box. Replace the bracket (now without handlebars) so you’re not missing the hardware when you get to your destination.
Front Forks. Loosen the hex bolt on the handlebar stem, and turn the front forks 180 degrees, so they’re backwards and tucked in closer to the frame. Re-tighten the hex bolt (and remember you’ve down this upon arrival, it’s easy to forget when you’re re-assembling the bike and suddenly the handlebars won’t mount properly).
Seat. Remove the seat, wrap in padding, and tape it to the bike frame. Make sure to mark your seat height on the seat stem.
Pedals. Using your bike tool (or pedal wrench, depending on the bike), remove your pedals and put them in a sealed plastic bag, to be taped to the bike frame later.
*Any additional hardware, camera or device mounts, should be added to the plastic bag with the pedals, and taped to the frame to make sure nothing gets lost. If you’re using an unmarked or pieced-together bike box, make sure to add arrows that say ‘this end up’, ‘do not stack’, and ‘do not lay flat’.
Once the bike is disassembled and packaged, lower the packaged frame into the bike box. Most airlines have a weight requirement of 50 lbs. Stand on a scale, weigh yourself. The weigh yourself on the same scale with the bike box (awkward I know). If your bike is under 50 lbs, stuff a sleeping bag or panniers in the with it for extra protection. On a return trip, add a bottle of wine or vodka and make good use of that space.
At the Airport
Once you’ve landed, and have found your bike box in the oversized luggage section, put it on a cart and get through security. Once outside, find a quiet spot to unpack and assemble your bike. If you see a security guard, give them a heads up about what you’re doing, and ask if it’s okay to leave your empty bike box propped against the wall. (Just make sure to leave the box open, showing it’s empty.)
I could barely keep my eyes open as I wandered down the long corridor through the airport in Lisbon. Would my bike be waiting for me at the baggage claim? I had been traveling for 35 hours, and before that, had been up late the night before having a minor panic attack thinking about the enormity of what I was undertaking. How was I going to find my way across Europe, cycling out of the Lisbon airport? I wouldn’t have a cell network, or wifi on the road, it was just me on my bicycle for the next 5 months, cycling across Europe.
I had researched bike routes and roads across Europe before I left, and was planning on cycling south from Lisbon, then following the coast all the way to Italy. I knew I would learn things on the road, from other cyclists and travelers, about the best roads to take and even the best place to enter a country. A map might show a road across a border, but that checkpoint might now be closed, or unsafe. All these things are unknown before you get close enough to make those particular decisions. It’s just not possible to plan an entire route for that long of a trip.
I wandered into the baggage claim, scanning the crowds of people and conveyor belts. All of a sudden, I spotted it. A sign that read ‘oversized luggage’. In a small, dark corner, there it was— a giant cardboard box with my bike in it. I balanced the enormous box on a cart, sped through security, and was deposited into a bustling, cavernous room that was the main terminal. I scouted around for a quiet corner to assemble my bike. For the next hour I sat there, quietly piecing together my bicycle as people wandered by giving me odd looks. Once it was together, I left the cardboard box leaning up against the wall (per security’s instructions) took my bike up an escalator to the south side of the airport (another horrifying moment, clutching a bicycle loaded down with 30 pounds up an escalator) but did it nonchalantly anyway, waiting for it to slip out of my grasp at any moment. I wheeled my bike toward two sliding glass doors, and all of a sudden, I was out in the European sunshine. I hopped on my bike, and started pedaling south. It was the most surreal thing I’ve ever done.
* * *
For your next trip, to avoid minor panic attacks regarding navigation, I’ve put together this list of the four things you need on a long-term cycling trip. There are other things you need too, like common sense, an open mind, and good communication with other cyclists and locals— but from a strictly gear standpoint, don’t head out into the sunshine without these.
1. Bike Computer
I use this CatEye Urban Wireless Bike Computer. It’s really easy to install, it works with a small sensor attached to your front spoke with the computer mounted on your handlebars. It only costs $45, and best of all, the display doesn’t overheat when biking all day in hot weather, like other bike computers I’ve seen. It does all the basics, like mph/kph and distance traveled, has big type for easy reading on the road, and is the best piece of equipment I had on my cycling trip.
2. Paper Maps
I used National Geographic Adventure maps almost the entire cycling trip. Not only did they come in handy when wifi wasn’t available, but they also listed campsites and local attractions along the route. They’re laminated with a matte finish and virtually impossible to destroy.
For most of Portugal, I just made sure I was heading south and didn’t bother to get on wifi or check my paper maps aside from scouting out the next camping spot. When all else fails, it’s great to have a compass to check the road direction.
4. Smart Phone with Offline Maps
I realized this gem several countries into my trip, and it would have made my life up until then far easier. Surprise! There are offline maps. I started using Maps.me, which is free, and even with no network shows you where you are on the map, and does routing. Many a time I came upon a confusing roundabout in France, and handy Maps.me was there to guide me. *Don’t flash your smart phone around. Bring a cheap Nokia to use with local sim cards and leave your smart phone locked up.
GPS devices are expensive, and I think, not necessary. I came across a lot of cyclist who had them though, so if you already own one by all means bring it. You can’t go wrong with directional backup, particularly if you’re on a long trip.
For Thanksgiving this year, I’m doing something a little different. I’m heading to Dolly Sods, West Virginia, USA for a cold weather backpacking trip with one of my friends. Dolly Sods has one of the most varied temperature ranges on the east coast due to its range of elevation and geographical location, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some snow. As much as I love Thankgiving food, I’m pretty pumped to make boxed mac and cheese in my little teapot over my pocket rocket.
Backpacking in cold temperatures requires a very different set of apparel. In the summertime, you can backpack naked if you want, no problem, but in the wintertime, it’s critical to pack the right gear so you don’t freeze/create a potentially dangerous situation when you’re in the back woods.
Balaclava (baselayer for your head): I usually only wear a balclava (not to be confused with baklava) when it’s in the single digits or below. I like to bring it with me on cold trips just in case, you never know when you’ll need it, and if the weather takes a turn it’s better to be prepared.
Cool Hat: It’s important to have a silly hat. My hat of choice these days is this aviator style lined with red fleece. It’s so warm I usually just wear it at night.
Earmuffs: Earmuffs are great for backpacking when it’s not quite cold enough for a hat.
Sunglasses: Don’t forget your sunglasses— especially if there’s snow, or the possibility of snow. You should always have sunglasses anyway for UV protection, but in the wintertime, you don’t want irritated eyes from the wind, or snow blindness from being exposed to bright white light for extended periods of time.
This is the most important thing to remember when dressing for cold weather. Make it a mantra. Your baselayer should be a thin, moisture wicking long-sleeve shirt. This will keep moisture away from your skin, which is what makes you cold. Moisture is the biggest threat to body warmth.
Your warmth layer should be a down jacket, fleece, or thermal shirt, depending on how cold it’s going to be. I usually pack an extra fleece to wear under my down jacket at night, and when it gets warmer during the day actively backpacking, I use my down jacket as my warmth layer.
Shell. This is your windbreaking layer. It can have a lining if you’ll be backpacking in extremely cold temperatures, but either one works as long as it blocks the wind and is worn over your warmth layers.
*It’s important to follow this standard with bottoms as well, but keeping the core warm, where your vital organs are, is more important than your extemities. Usually I’ll wear a baselayer (mositure wicking yoga pants), with thick leggings, and only if it’s really cold/windy, windbreaker pants.
Bring two pairs of gloves; baselayer gloves which are good for dexterity, and really warm windbreaking gloves. If it gets hot during the day, you can wear the thinner ones, and if the temperature drops you can switch.
In the summertime, I wear whatever footwear I want to backpack. I think it’s important to keep in mind you don’t need the most expensive gear on the market to get outside. That said, in particular for cold weather backpacking, it’s a good idea to have waterproof/Gore-tex boots in case of melting snow so you won’t be walking around in wet shoes. In the summertime it’s no problem, but in the wintertime, it could turn into an issue, or you’ll just be really miserable for the remainder of the trip.
Wool socks are great for wicking sweat away from your skin. If you have tender feet, wear them inside out so the seams don’t rub up against your skin and cause blisters. Bring an extra pair or two depending on how much you sweat, that way your feet will always be nice and dry.
A word about under garmets. Don’t wear them. If you need to wear them, buy a synthetic blend that doesn’t absorb moisture to avoid chafing.
*Gear gets sweaty after hiking around all day. Make sure when you set up camp for the night you air your damp clothes out. It’s good to bring an extra set of baselayer, so while one set is drying out overnight, you’ll have something dry to put on to stay warm.
Dani Bradford is an explorer/designer/adventurer who has traveled extensively across the globe. Dani most recently completed a 4,500 mile+ cycling journey across Europe through 15 countries, from Portugal to Georgia. She loves squirrels, believes wholeheartedly in a minimalist lifestyle, and idolizes Han Solo.