Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.
Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.
So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?
I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.
I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.
Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.
1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.
2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.
3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.
There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.
As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.
There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?
It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time.
We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.
It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.
There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.
When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.
The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.
My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.
“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”
I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.
This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.
Travelling might be all about discovery and abandoning our comfort zones. But at times, when your comfort zone is a club with some loud music, well, it’s nice to know where to find it when you are abroad.
As a resident of Malaysia, I feel it is time to give justice to my acquired home talking about two places that host a plethora of local and international touring bands. They are both prominent Malaysian homes for the loudest kinds of music, and as such might not be ideal for everybody. But again, if it’s about going in and out of “comfort zones”, it might as well be great to get out of yours and discover some Malaysian loudness, after all.
Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the main Jetty and facing the entrance of the Lee Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because although they have a bar, it is not open every day. It’s a real, do it yourself underground venue, where heavy metal, punk, death metal, alternative rock and heavy derivates spray the walls with sweat. The show room is decently sized and the PA quite OK for an underground enterprise: consider that in Malaysia, a country who forced a ban on black metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time even to Elton John because he is openly gay, you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your early nights, as shows usually end by 12 am.
Soundmaker is also a recording studio and jam room, and recently opened a small hostel room. The novelty is, it welcomes travelling bands and musicians to stay and record their music at a fraction of western prices.
Rumah Api – Kuala Lumpur
In a place called the “fire house”, you may only expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat, and set your own eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, the ceiling is about to cave in, and sitting on torn car backseats slung on the floor a common practice, well, welcome to Rumah Api then. The only place in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object the city’s rampant, over-constructed technological wealth and high-class-loving youth. A stone throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api stands to KL as the CBGB’s stood to early New York punk. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating – literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine – on the low stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some too to enjoy it. Otherwise, this could come as kind of a shock.
MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld
“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”
I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.
As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.
It’s not long before I get my answer.
“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”
For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.
When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.
These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.
Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.
If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.
So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.
In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.
And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.
After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.
To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler
Long- term travelers of all kinds will tell you that one of the most important preliminary steps to taking off is The Purge. That period of time that you devote to deciding which material possessions will still be necessary and dear to your heart after traipsing all over the globe in pursuit of clarity, freedom, connection, adventure, and knowledge. Clothing is donated, items are sold to pay for gear, and maybe a tupperware or two are packed to the brim with things you can’t bare to say goodbye to just yet. Everything else, everything that will represent your existence for the time you spend abroad will be packed into a backpack or suitcase, a necessary piece of gear that looked far bigger before you started packing it.
The act of purging everything was a huge undertaking that occupied our minds and our time for months before we left. The fact that we decided to get rid of almost everything helped in that we didn’t have to think much, we just had to get rid of it. Easier said than done.
For the past several years I have considered myself someone who does not really need all that much. Not a minimalist, but certainly not a materialist either. In new York, my husband and I participated in the consumerist culture far less than our teenage foster daughters would have liked. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s; we didn’t believe that we “needed” anything in a commercial with a catchy jingle; we didn’t eat out more than once a week; we bought local whenever possible instead of feeding the corporate machine of mass made goods; we had a family rule that if you were going to bring a new piece of clothing into your wardrobe, you needed to get rid of another piece first. By most accounts, we were doing pretty good at not getting sucked into the consumerist machine.
And yet, as I cleaned out our closets and gathered our things in boxes, I realized just how much stuff we had. How did that happen??
I don’t know about you but I live in one pair of shoes, depending on the season. Fuzzy boots for winter and flip flops for summer. So how the heck had I accumulated over 20 pairs of shoes?! Aaron could wear the same five shirts over and over again without complaint so why in the world did he have bags and bags of t-shirts to give away?!
The more we purged, the more guilt I felt. While it felt great to get rid of so many uneccesary possessions. I couldn’t help but feel this nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I had still been pulled in by the “just in case” notion that consumerism thrives on. In fact, when I really took stock, more than half of what we owned could fall into the “just in case” category. Why, in New York City, I was so consumed by the notion of “just in case” (without even being aware of it!) is beyond me. If I really needed something I could just go out and buy said item when the need actually arose. I could have even *gasp* asked a neighbor if I could borrow theirs. Instead, I had filled my house with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even need, “just in case”. What a waste!
Adding to my guilt was the realization of just how many things we had been throwing away. Shoes whose soles had worn through, toys that no longer worked, tools with missing pieces had all gone into the garbage and, eventually, into a landfill. As I packed our entire life into backpacks, I realized just how wasteful we had been. Everything I packed had to do at least double duty. Anything that ripped or became worn we would have to try to repair before replacing it due to budget constraints and lack of resources in some areas. It did not bother us to think that we could not easily replace things on the road so why had we been so flippant about throwing things out in New York? We are very aware that much of the rest of the world lives without the ability to throw out and quickly replace anything they desire so how did we get caught up in doing just that?
Without fully realizing it, my husband and I had been participating, more than either of us cared to admit, in the consumerist culture we didn’t endorse. I have come to think that there is no way to completely avoid consumerism when the entire culture around you embraces it. Convenience becomes an easy thing to pay for and, before you know it, you have lots of stuff and lots of waste. There are some tough souls who are able to resist this culture to a very impressive level, no matter their surroundings. We put in a strong effort, but when we really looked at the evidence we had to admit that we just didn’t do as well as we had thought.
Long-term travel is an amazing educator when it comes to sustainability. Cars from the 50′s troll the streets of Mumbai, serviced and repaired beyond what any American would think is “reasonable”. Cobblers make a decent living on streets around the world where throwing out shoes with small holes is inconceivable. Chicken wire is taken down and repurposed over and over again until it finds a home within the walls of a cob house in Guatemala. Baby food jars become perfect containers for homemade salves, creams, and cosmetics in Puerto Viejo. Most of the world survives easily without a constant need for new things.
The initial purge is just phase one in a long journey to recognizing the reality of our personal roles in a consumerist society. The continuing journey can be eye opening in terms of illuminating just how much “need” (I use the term loosely) we really could eliminate just by shifting our thinking away from a mentality based in scarcity and replacing it with one based in abundance.
I no longer by things “just in case”. In fact, we no longer buy anything without checking first to see if we can make it, borrow it, or Macgyver it. I still carry a little but of guilt about how much I use to have (and waste) but then again, once you know better, you do better.
What do you think? Has travel influenced your perception of consumerism or changed how you view your consumption habits?
Photo Credit: tarotastic
A couple of years ago, while riding my bicycle down Burma’s Irrawaddy valley, I somehow managed to destroy my khaki trousers. These were the only pair of pants I had with me at the time, so I stopped off in a town called Pakkoku and — faced with no other realistic clothing options — purchased a long, cotton lungi to cover my legs for the rest of the trip.
In the event that you aren’t familiar with fashions in this part of Asia, a lungi is a tube of silk or cotton cloth that Burmese men wear around their waists. Essentially, it looks like an elegant, ankle-length skirt. And, unless you count the kilt, there is no fashion equivalent for men in the West.
Thus, having no instincts for wearing a skirt, I encountered all kinds of functional challenges while wearing my new lungi. For starters, I invariably tripped over the hem when walking on any surface that wasn’t completely level. Somehow, Burmese men could stride up staircases in their lungis while still looking perfectly masculine, while I was forced to lift the cloth and mince up slight inclines like some kind of “Gone With the Wind” debutante. Even more difficult was riding my bicycle.
The more the Burmese giggled, however, the better I got at wearing the lungi. By the time I arrived in Rangoon nearly two weeks later, I was able to walk and bike gracefully on all variety of surfaces. Impressed locals gave me the thumbs-up at the sight of my dapper Burmese threads, playfully asking me if I was from Burma.
I had, it seemed, successfully “gone native” with my travel wardrobe. And it felt good.
When I flew on from Rangoon to Bangkok, however, I quickly learned that – - by backpacker fashion standards — going native is far more complicated than simply buying local clothing and learning how to wear it.
As I strolled in my new lungi through the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto (where I’d hoped to buy a new pair of khaki pants), I noticed that many of my fellow travelers were giving me funny looks. Since Khao San is a place where Westerners with, say, chicken bones through their noses and dreadlocked armpit hair hardly garner a second glance, I wondered what the problem was.
That afternoon at my guesthouse, a sun-browned Australian traveler clued me in. “Look at ya, mate,” he said. “You’ve got it all mixed up.”
I looked down at my outfit. In addition to my lungi, I sported a nylon fanny pack (which made up for my lack of pockets) and a North Face dry-wick shirt (which had kept the sun off while biking). This ensemble didn’t strike me as particularly strange, but — according to the Aussie — wearing a fanny pack (stereotypically favored by middle-aged tourists) and a boutique safari shirt (which, while functional, is the modern fashion equivalent of a pith helmet) effectively canceled the lungi out.
The problem, it seemed, wasn’t that I had “gone native,” but that I had gone native in an incomplete and bourgeois manner. “From the looks of it,” he said, “you don’t know if you just walked out of a jungle or a shopping mall.”
Going native to one degree or another, of course, has always been a part of the travel experience. Until the past couple of centuries, in fact, going native wasn’t a travel option so much as a travel necessity. From Herodotus to Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark, eating local cuisines, learning local languages and wearing local clothing was simply how the traveler survived in foreign lands. This all changed, however, as British travelers and expats alike were increasingly expected to maintain the same decorum overseas as applied back home. Fraternizing with locals was discouraged, safari parties trotted off into foreign jungles sporting woolen raiment and, as late as the 1930s, officials of the British Empire could be fired for wearing native clothing.
What this colonial protocol overlooked, of course, was that going at least partially native has always been an important step in experiencing other cultures. Wearing native clothing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but abiding by local dress codes (particularly in regard to modesty) is essential if you want to be accepted within the cultures you visit.
But it’s often difficult to determine where the propriety of “going native” begins and ends. Travel is not the same as emigration, after all, and no combination of culinary and fashion savvy can truly make you a part of your host culture. At some point, then, many attempts to “go native” cease to be an inquiry into other cultures and begin to be a token of status within travel culture itself.
In “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin observes that nomadic animal species tend to be less dependent upon hierarchies and shows of dominance, since the hardships of the journey naturally weed out the weak. However, now that humans’ nomadic life rarely involves natural selection, travel culture seems to have utilized fashion as one subtle kind of litmus test. Ostensibly, a Shan jacket worn with a Mao hat and cotton pajama bottoms implies that you had the Darwinian oomph to survive northern Burma, communist China and the Punjab. As with all fashions, however, the accepted vogue for going native tends to be fickle. In Jordan, for example, scores of Westerners trade ball caps for Arab khaffiyeh scarves to better keep the sun off — but few of those same travelers would don conical peasant hats for the same purpose in Vietnam.
In the end, then, “going native” is a mixed endeavor — part attempt to understand your host culture, and part extension of how you want to selectively showcase your travels to others. Properly balancing these urges is part of the challenge and fun of travel.
Just for the record, I now own three Burmese lungis — two cotton and one silk. I find them comfortable, functional, and stylish. And chicks dig the look.
But until they make them with pockets, I will — fashion be damned — continue to wear them with a fanny pack.
Originally published by SFGate, March 14, 2004
About a decade ago, on a whim, I took a trip to Costa Rica and opened the door to a world I didn’t know existed. I still remember crowding around the computer with my friends and studying ticket prices. I remember feeling a little silly that I had never been out of the country except for one brief trip to Canada when I was 10. I twas confused but determined as I applied for my first passport. Beaches, monkeys, and learning to surf were all I thought about as the weeks ticked by. When I returned I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I saw- the waterfalls, the monkeys, the flowers- might be different if I were to return. I felt incredibly grateful for having been able to experience what I had at the exact time that I had.
Months later, already bitten by the travel bug (but not entirely aware of that fact), I was off to India. I touched the walls of the Taj Mahal and drank my weight in chai. I wrapped myself in a sari for a wedding and was genuinely surprised to learn that New Delhi in December is cold. One morning, at dawn, I found myself atop the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As the call to prayer went out, everyone around me dropped to their knees. The newness of the moment and my ignorance of cultural practices made me pause before I followed suit and for a brief moment, I was alone, standing atop the Golden Temple, the whole colorful world around me, on their knees, connected in an invisible way by their love, their need, and their devotion.
Travel is full of these moments. The moments that take your breath away. Moments that suddenly illuminate a belief that had always lived inside of you but you never knew you had. Moments that happen in an instant that you will replay in your mind and retell to your friends for the rest of your life. Cliche as it may be, these moments feel nothing sort of magical, especially in those early days of travel.
But here’s the thing about moments- if we don’t take them out of the memory box they don’t do us much good. If we romanticize the moments and forget to employ the lessons those moments taught us, the growth it encourages within us, then those moments become great stories and not much more. Travel is gift but if we forget to actively employ the breathtaking moments and incorporate them into our everyday thoughts and actions, we miss the opportunity to “connect the dots”. Travel cannot fix all things. It cannot replace the day to day work of being a thoughtful human being, connected in a meaningful way to one’s core beliefs and values.
If we do not do the work in our day to day lives; If we let the lessons we have learned slip by the wayside when we return; If we write blog posts about our experiences but forget to turn our philosophical ponderings into action, then those moments never get to work their real, transformative magic.
Having that brief moment of realization at the Golden Temple was amazing. It is a moment I replay over and over and it still takes my breath away a little, each time I think of it. The real gift, however, has been the constant development and deepening of my belief that we are all connected by our shared humanity. That moment has touched my life far beyond the 60 seconds it took me to take it all in, take a breath, and drop to my knees. It is a moment that reminds me to never forget connect the dots between the other wondrous moments and my day to day life.
Moments like these do not have to happen atop the Golden Temple. Where have you experienced wondrous moments?
As magical as the Grand Canyon is from the top, peering down into red and purple shades of rock so far down your eyes lose an ability to judge the distance, it is yet more magical from the very bottom peering up. Perhaps because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a journey down, and perhaps from a feeling of quiet, peaceful seclusion from the modern world.
Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trek down just to spend the night at the bottom in either Phantom Ranch or nearby Bright Angel Campground. It may not feel that way as you wade through the tedious reservation process for Phantom Ranch, but that is not the logistical detail I’ll be going over in this post.
In this post, I’d like to give a little bit of insight for potential hikers trying to decide which trail to take, as there are 3 major trails leading down to the bottom, North Kaibob, South Kaibob, and Bright Angel Trail. Having hiked the entirety of each of these trails at some point, I’d love to give a hiker’s perspective.
Bright Angel Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim
Bright Angel Trail is probably the easiest trail to recommend because of its frequent water stops and moderate distance. Hikers who are not interested in going all the way down to the bottom of the canyon can hike down to the Indian Gardens region 4.9 miles down instead.
But what this trail is especially good for is the journey back up, regardless of which trail you’ve taken down. While it’s not the shortest of the trails we’ll talk about, it is the shortest one with water stops. Both of these details are extremely important for an upward journey. Hiking up the canyon can take significantly longer than hiking down and can be far more fatiguing.
The atmosphere of this trail is interesting as well. It will lead you through a quintessential red-rock desert type of environment until you reach the lush area of the Indian Gardens. After this point, you descent towards the river and complete the last part of your journey walking alongside it.
South Kaibob Trail
Distance to Bright Angel Campground: 7.1 miles
Access points: Bright Angel Campground and Yaki Point along the South Rim.
I chose this for an ascending hike one year and it was the most difficult Grand Canyon hike I’ve done. It is steep, has no water stops, and leads you through a dry, winding cliffside that offers little relief from the sun at times. Hikers who choose this route should be very intentional and realistic about the supplies they pack with them. It is indeed a shorter hike, as the shortest of the trails we’ll mention today, but the most strenuous one, so take this into account.
I recommend this trail mostly for descending. Particularly if a person is concerned about making it to the bottom in time for a scheduled dinner. (All meals at phantom ranch must be reserved and fall into a strict schedule). And while it’s not impossible to use this trail for ascending, it’s not to be taken lightly.
North Kaibob Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 14 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead.
I chose this one to discuss last because it is my favorite, and I’d like to share a piece I wrote about it after hiking it last month.
But first, the logistical details: This trail is the longest of those mentioned today. Significantly so. And yet, it is not a strenuous 14 miles comparatively. It is not as steep, and the environment transitions frequently. There are plenty of water stops and as long as you are providing a realistic amount of time for the hike (anywhere from 5 – 9 hours), this is a wonderful choice for a descending hike. Anyone considering this hike for the ascending trip should remember that ascending hikes take significantly longer than descending.
This is not a very popular trail, as the only trail leading up to the North Rim, but I’d like to reference the thoughts I made in a post last month to advocate for this trail as a favorite.
“The North Rim is quiet. If you stand and listen for a moment you don’t hear the chatter of a high traffic tourist destination as you would on the South Rim. Instead you hear the wind through the pines. In fact, the beginning of your trek does not feel like quintessential Canyon red rock dust and desert. Instead you’re in a gentle pine forest. In fact the first stretch of the North Kaibab Trail hike begins in this setting until the vegetation shrinks back and you can see the height of the cliff you’re standing on. The view opens up and you make your way down along cliffs into the floor of a side canyon. And then the landscape changes again. Every few miles, in fact, the landscape of the North Kaibab seems to change into something new as the canyon walls rise around you, layering back until the rim disappears behind the cliffs nearest your path.
These early miles of the trail find you descending through an ancient solidified display of the earth’s history- a core sample of the layers of earth in front of your very eyes till you reach the most ancient layers of subtly glittering Vishnu Shist, so ancient it lacks any traces of organic, biological matter. This amazing artifact of geological history lines the later miles of the trail like gravel, kicked along humbly by the feet of hikers.
This is also where you reach a little canyon creek that slips like melted glass through desert rock and brings green life wherever it goes. Most of the remaining 7.2 miles of the North Kaibab follow this creek. As I looked at it, I wondered at how different it seemed from the forest creeks I grew up with in Ohio, clouded with decaying plant life and stirring up mud. This water, cupped by canyon rock seemed more pure and more lively. And the plants that line the banks are so foreign to someone who grew up far from the desert. Prickly, spiny, spindly little plants keeping themselves as inward as possible, not spilling out clumsily into one another like the leaves and grasses of the east. Orderly, linear plants.
The creekside portion of this trail levels out significantly and you find yourself anticipating each bend will reveal the little cabins of Phantom Ranch.
It’s always further than you think. But I don’t mind in that environment. Even tired and hungry, I’m happy to be there.”
Five months of extended, slow travel taught me valuable life lessons that I never could have learned from a one week vacation or a weekend getaway. Once I got past the initial lure of traveling to new places (including Guatemala, Taiwan, Australia, and Ethiopia), seeing new things, and doing different activities, the time spent traveling really became a deeper, personal experience; travel became introspective and a journey within to make discoveries about myself and my place in the world.
These are the lessons about life that I have learned after five months of travel around the world…
Be a little nicer to others.
When you travel, you make yourself vulnerable by leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world. You need help because you normally don’t know where you are, what to eat, and how to speak the local language. People are out there to help you, as long as you let them. You’ll see how people will open themselves up once you show some compassion and kindness.
I once heard a 103-year-old woman answer the question, “What’s the best advice you can give to others on how to live their lives?” She simply replied, “Be a little nicer to others.” All those years of experience and wisdom and she understood that life at the core is made of all the interactions and connections, big and small, that we have with others.
Be nice. Be extra nice. Bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel and you don’t need millions of dollars to be happy. If you’re always comparing your net worth to others’ net worth, you’ll never be happy.
Happiness starts from within. If you’re pursuing things that you’re passionate about and give you purpose, you’ll be happier. When you help others for unselfish reasons, you’ll be happier. And when you connect with a purpose that’s bigger than you, you’ll truly be happy.
I’ve met some of the happiest people in some of the poorest countries in the world and I’ve met some of the most depressed people in some of the richest countries in the world. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Living life on purpose will give you all the happiness you’ll ever need.
Fulfilling work, quality time with your kids, “me” time, nutritious meals, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, and meaningful travel are all the ingredients of a healthy life. You can have it all, as long as you make balance your goal.
Sometimes you overwork yourself for weeks without end. You sleep less. You don’t go to the gym when you should. You eat junk foods and load up on coffee. Then you crash. Hard. And your body needs two full days to recover. You need balance every day all the time.
Too much of anything isn’t healthy or sustainable. Balance is essential to healthy living.
Live your life.
Your life is yours and yours alone. Be who you are. Follow your passions. Trust your gut. Don’t compare yourself with others. Stay true to what you believe.
The key is to live. Many people are dying a slow death in a profession they are bored with; others are in destructive relationships; some are using escapes from actually living by abusing drugs, alcohol, TV, Internet, etc.
You need to choose to live your life. That choice begins with trusting yourself and moving forward with your heart.
Love the journey.
Life is not a race, so enjoy the journey. Each step you take and each personal connection you make hopefully gets you closer to your truest, most authentic self. When you value the journey more than the destination, you are grateful for each step and blessing. You realize that failures exist not only as small lessons, but also as opportunities for mercies to come through. And you are present in every moment.
When you let your heart lead the way, you’ll be on the path towards realizing your dreams. Sometimes what we want isn’t what the world says we should want, what our parents say we should want, or what our peers say we should want, but your path ultimately is the product of your choices.
Stay the course. Listen to your heart. Let the love flow.
Love the journey and you’ll be on your way.
For more about Cliff’s travels, visit his website: LiveFamilyTravel
I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, trudging through monsoon rains in Kolkata, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but I am thankful for the richness travel has brought to our friendship. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and redefine education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What are the best gifts travel has given you?