What is Your Travel Style?

Khabar Magazine. May 2019.

As I checked into a charming Italian villa converted into a boutique hotel, nestled on top of a hill on the Amalfi Coast, I wondered how I would spend two summer days in this romantic location by myself. I stood on the purple-bougainvillea-wrapped white balcony of my room, with a glass of champagne in my hand, staring at the blue waters and rocky beaches of Positano, feeling at peace with myself. In that moment, I really didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I just stayed at the hotel—reading, writing, eating, and soaking in the views for the rest of my trip.

Travel teaches you that being alone doesn’t make you “lonely” and you can enjoy your own company, as much as the company of others.

Until my late twenties, I had never been on a vacation without my parents or my spouse. One day I told my husband that I would be going to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law, and he was shocked. I had not even traveled to India by myself until that point.

The reason I started traveling without my family was mainly because of conflicting schedules. I wanted to travel more, but my husband’s corporate job only allotted a couple of weeks of vacation a year. I had a strong desire to see the world, a flexible schedule, and the resources to make it a reality.

Since then, I have traveled solo and also with friends, apprentices, and groups—to parts of the world I didn’t even know existed. On lone adventures, I hiked through the forests of Japan, slept in yurts in the Gobi Desert, and listened to lions roar from a camp in the Masai Mara.

On the other hand, I have also slept in a house with two dozen volunteer travelers in Morocco, and sailed in the Galapagos on a private yacht with 20 colleagues, who soon became friends.

When people ask me if they should take a trip alone or with a group, to book a package tour or go with the flow, my response is usually, “It depends!”

Depending on the destination, duration, budget, and your personality, you may prefer one travel style over the other. I personally feel all of them can be rewarding as long as you set expectations beforehand and have a flexible attitude.

05_19_Travel_SamarMisra.jpg

(Left) Samar Misra, the solo traveler.

Samar Misra, a graduate student at Alabama A&M University, frequently travels alone. His last trip spanned over two months, taking him to UAE, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore. “It allows me more flexibility and freedom to travel alone. I am not chained to certain activities that my family and friends may like,” he says. On his last trip to Rishikesh, Misra, on an impulse, decided to join a group of extreme adventurers and jump off a rock into the river (with a life jacket on), something his family would not have done or approved of.

Mishra grew up in a household where most family vacations would involve visiting relatives in India and traveling around the country in large organized groups. “There is value in family vacations, too. I have vivid memories of my cousins, uncles, and aunts going to the Taj Mahal. We still reflect on and laugh at incidents from that trip!”

Mishra usually books his trips himself through various websites, apps, and with the assistance of friends. “I have a basic idea of where I am going, and may book some of the flights, but the rest I fill in as I go,” says Mishra. He enjoys wandering around neighborhoods and seeing how the locals live, something he wouldn’t be able to do with a restricted itinerary.

Travel also makes us more resourceful. As a vegan, Mumbai native Lakshmi Jagad prefers to rent a home through AirBnB so she has access to a kitchen. “It is sometimes difficult to find restaurants that cater to us, and we like to keep expenses low, so we cook at least a few meals while traveling,” says Jagad referring to vacations she took to Guatemala, Morocco, Greece, Peru, and Canada, with her husband.

While traveling with a tour group, it is more difficult to exercise dietary constraints, but more travel agents nowadays accommodate dairy free, gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian requests if you let them know ahead of time. “We went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland with a group and booked the trip through a local agency. We told them we are vegan and it wasn’t an issue at all!” Jagad assures.

Tour operators can also help with communicating cultural differences that you may not be able to deal with on your own. “For example, you may go to Vietnam and ask for a vegetarian dish but realize their version of vegetarian includes seafood and eggs,” Mishra adds.

Speaking for myself, when I was traveling through Japan for ten days, staying at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the countryside, it would have been almost impossible to figure out cultural norms on my own. It was only through my tour guide (who spoke fluent Japanese and English), that I discovered you had to take your shoes off before entering the hotel, put on robes called yukata in the correct fashion, bathe in anonsen (community bath house), and follow certain dining etiquettes. Given that no one at the inns spoke a word of English, I wouldn’t have been able to check in to my room or order food without a hired guide.

05_19_Travel_GauravBhatia.jpg

Gaurav Bhatia (right) likes to travel alone and connect with locals.

Atlanta-based ESL teacher, Gaurav Bhatia, has discovered another way to travel—he goes alone on self-planned trips where he’s always surrounded by locals. Bhatia communicates with native Spanish speakers he finds through italki.com (a video-chat language platform) to practice his language skills. “I remember the first night I was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I was treated to a Christmas dinner by my host and her family, and I instantly felt at home,” Bhatia recalls about his last trip.

The language exchange program allows travelers to meet locals, have one-on-one conversations and stay at people’s homes for little to no cost. Bhatia only books his flight and boarding, unless a local host offers a place to stay. Then it’s up to his new friends to show him around their city. These loosely planned vacations allow Bhatia to have chance encounters and deep conversations with strangers, learning about their country, beliefs, and way of life. He has been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala to visit his language partners and often spends his entire time with them.

When traveling alone, we are often forced to strike up conversations with strangers. I have found myself befriending people at airports, restaurants, hotels, tours, taxis, etc. whom I normally wouldn’t have noticed, had I been busy talking to a companion. It seems people also feel more comfortable talking to you when they see you are alone, and often go out of their way to help you.

While walking through the busy streets of Istanbul without a map or smart phone, I often got lost and asked strangers for direction. To my surprise, most people didn’t just tell me where to go, they would walk me to my destination, chatting along the way. On one such instance, I randomly met a newspaper publisher whom I keep in touch with till date. The next day, I joined my group for a ten-day tour of Turkey and did not experience any such random interactions with strangers, though I also didn’t lose my way again!

Tour companies and operators offer value and convenience for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping for deals and booking each aspect of the trip individually. Although Divya Pahwa, travel agent at New Delhi-based Explorers Travel Boutique, who focuses exclusively on group travel, says, “Many South Asian clients will speak to one or more travel agents first to compare costs and then book directly online themselves.”

Many South Asians are using websites such as AirBnB, MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, and Yatra to book hotel, air, and sightseeing packages.

I knew Russia was not a place I wanted to visit on my own, because of logistics, language barriers, and safety, so I decided to book a group trip that focuses on volunteer vacationing. The company arranged to pick me up from the airport in Moscow and had made reservations for a comfortable stay at an apartment in Yaroslavl with four other women, where we had healthy and delicious home cooked Russian meals. During the day, we would be escorted by an English-speaking guide to meet other women, visit orthodox churches, tour the city, and never had to worry about the planning aspect. On the one evening that the five of us decided to go out for dinner on our own (without the tour company or guide), we struggled to find the right bus and order at the restaurant as the menus were only in Russian and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English!

Some people prefer package tours with a little flexibility. During our 2-week Mediterranean cruise, my husband and I declined all the shore tours offered by the cruise line. Instead, as soon as our megaship docked at the port, we leisurely walked for miles savoring the smells and sights of the city. As a couple with common interests, we decided to skip the long lines to enter historic sites and museums. Instead, we opted to stroll through gardens and markets, taking long afternoon breaks at outdoor cafes, as one does in Europe. Though all our meals were included onboard, we wanted to experience authentic local flavors. We would find a small neighborhood bakery in Marseille serving warm flaky croissants, the best gelato corner in Cinque Terre, and mouthwatering and cheap seafood paella with Spanish wine in Vigo.

In Morocco, I stayed at a house with 20 other travelers from around the world, who had signed up for an organized volunteer vacation. We had a set itinerary, home-cooked meals, and some sightseeing activities included in the package. Yet, they had also provided for free time to the volunteers over the weekend. Talking casually over breakfast, some of us decided to rent a van and travel from Rabat to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, where we camped under the star-studded African desert sky. It was a long exhausting drive into wilderness, not something I would have done alone. But my new companions gave me the confidence which led to one of the most memorable trips of my life!

05_19_Travel_SouthAfrica.jpg

(Left) The author and her husband on a road trip in South Africa.

Most recently, we rented a car in South Africa for a 10-day vacation. My husband drove on the left side of the road, along the winding scenic roads of the Western Cape, as I navigated from the passenger seat. It allowed us to plan each day as it came, stopping at different cities, as and when we wished. Though we had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, our plans never worked out the way we thought. We took a detourto visit a wild cat sanctuary which pushed us back 3 hours, met up with a friend at the beach cancelling the rest of the evening, and turned a Sunday brunch into an all-day event at a vineyard.

Whether you are thinking about traveling alone or with family and friends, doing it yourself or hiring a travel agent, there are pros and cons to each. Traveling in a group is more affordable, structured and brings joy in sharing, while traveling solo offers more flexibility, honest interactions, and can be personally empowering. One needs to experience all forms of travel for they teach us something different about ourselves and our interactions with the world.

~ Written for & published by Khabar Magazine May 2019 print edition. All rights reserved.

Travel Tips from Solo Women World Travelers

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. Oct 2018.

If you don’t want to wait around to sync schedules with your parents, family or friends, you don’t have to. With technology at their fingertips and transparency among travelers, women are more empowered than ever to travel the world on their own. Moreover, the rewards are a more enriching experience where you have time to self-reflect, meet locals and explore on your own time and terms.

Tuanni Price started traveling abroad once her kids were grown up, wanting to find herself. She booked herself a three-week trip to Spain in 2013 and is now moving to South Africa for her wine tour company. “I loved the fact that I could wake up and roam around randomly, eat when I wanted to and explore the small towns,” she recounts her stay in Barcelona. Price says she prefers to stay at Airbnbs so she can save money and stay longer at a destination. She also uses Airbnb experiences to meet people and share meals. Over a dinner party experience in Barcelona, she met a few singles and they ended up celebrating a fun New Year’s Eve together.

Tuanni Price of Zuri Wine Tasting holding a passport
Pictured: Tuanni Price

“You have to be careful about your location though,” she points out that she picks her accommodations in busy areas where there is always a security guard or doorman. The only time she felt unsafe was wandering through the streets of Paris late at night. “That is one place I would recommend staying in a nicer hotel or going with a companion,” she says referring to the mixed neighborhoods in bustling big cities.

RELATED: Trace Black History, Food and Culture in London

RELATED: Tips for African-American Travelers in Japan

Price also uses Uber frequently and when she finds a good driver that she feels safe with, she hires them out for the day as it allows her the flexibility to visit several areas such as wineries around Cape Town at a negotiated rate.

At 6-feet tall, social impact consultant Tammy Freeman often stands out in a crowd when traveling abroad. When she first visited Singapore in 2000 for a study abroad program, she had culture shock. “No one told me that I will be stared at all the time like I was on TV. For us in the U.S., that is considered rude, but in some cultures it’s acceptable,” she says. She realized that the people didn’t mean any harm, so she simply smiled or waved back.

Freeman has been spending 2-3 months out of the year in Rio De Janeiro since 2016 running a social enterprise co-op.  She also owns Soul and Story, an online store that offers amazing handmade goods created by women around the world. “Rio gets a bad rap for violence, like any major city, but you need to have your wits about you. It is not the place to wear your fancy shoes and gold jewelry. Just try to blend in, wear casual clothing like shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops so you don’t stand out,” she advises on traveling to Brazil.

Social Impact Consultant Tammy Freeman in Kenya
Pictured: Tammy Freeman in Kenya

Kenya is another country that Freeman recommends visiting for its beaches, nightlife, food and markets. Instead of bars and nightclubs, Freeman prefers hotels, wine festivals, artisanal markets and malls, for they offer a more sophisticated and safe atmosphere for solo females. She also recommends visiting places that have good access to public transportation and are easy to navigate, such as Amsterdam, Istanbul, Cape Town and Amalfi Coast.

Mia Herman is a flight attendant and travel blogger (Travel with Mia) who has lived all over the world and traveled to 30+ countries. Though married, Herman still travels independently to focus on her writing and to meet locals.

“As a person of color, you need to research the political sentiment of the country,” she says and take extra care in countries that are politically unstable or where women are not given the highest regard. “Still I have never had a negative experience that has prevented me from traveling.” She notes that she received a lot of male attention in Istanbul, but it was harmless.

Her safety tip is to never share your accommodation location with strangers even in a casual conversation with people you know because you don’t know who is listening in. Also, never announce specifics about where you will be and at what time publicly.

Herman tries to find humor in every situation and not take offense to people of other cultures. When dining at an authentic restaurant in Kowloon, Herman found herself to be the only black female surrounded by all Asians who started taking pictures of her eating her noodle soup with chopsticks. Without hesitation, she just posed for them.

Travel Blogger Mia Herman eating noodles in Japan
Pictured: Mia Herman eating noodles in Japan

Herman’s favorite places as a solo traveler are the Czech Republic and Croatia as the “people are incredibly nice and welcoming” she affirms. For women who are traveling alone internationally for the first time, she advises starting with English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or going on a Mediterranean cruise so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier and can navigate more easily.

On my first solo trip, friends had warned me of Morocco’s famous con artists. I was on alert during my train ride from Rabat to Fez when someone approached, offering a tour and car service. My inner voice advised me not to book a tour on a moving train but instead, visit their office and verify the company’s legitimacy first. Still, I booked it hiding my money in my socks, wrapped a whistle around my wrist and was always ready with plan B.

Female instincts have come in handy more than once while traveling solo through 80 countries since then. Once, there was a sandstorm and I was stranded on the Israel-Jordan border. There was no other option but to take an overnight bus to Tel Aviv to make my flight back to Atlanta. The bus driver made all announcements in Hebrew as he or no one on the bus spoke any English. To make myself feel safer and not be left behind at restroom stops, I sat in the very front row and made sure the driver was aware of my presence.

Every traveler must follow certain rules about carrying little cash, keeping backup batteries, learning a few words of the local language, etc. But when it comes to women, it is even more important to be aware of your surroundings, do your research and always have a plan of where you are going and make sure somebody back home knows about it at all time.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine.

 

The Art of Surviving Unexpected Travel Delays: 8 Ways to Prepare for When You’re Stuck at the Airport

For One Travel’s Going Places. September 2018.

With holidays around the corner, chances are you will encounter larger crowds and weather-related delays while traveling. It’s a frustrating fact about air travel and being equipped with the right tools and knowledge can seriously save you some stress and aggregations in case you end up getting stuck in an airport.

Here are 8 things you can do to be ready to survive an expected travel delay like a proficient traveler. Continue reading on One Travel

This Is How to Do Your Weekend Getaway at Yosemite

For One Travel. May 2018.

Whether you are a thrill-seeking mountain climber, long-distance biker, or just like to relax outdoors with the family, chances are that you will be able to find an amazing vacation that will satisfy your mind and body in the expansive 1,200 miles of Yosemite National Park. While the best time to visit Yosemite is during spring when the snow is melting and the waterfalls are at their full gushing glory, its massive granite mountains covered with glaciers, ancient giant sequoias, and vast meadows are spectacular year-round.

Continue reading on One Travel….

 

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.

02_18_Travel_Thali.jpg

(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.

02_18_Travel_Temple.jpg

(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.

02_18_Travel_TeaPlantation.jpg

(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!

02_18_Travel_SpiceVillage.jpg

 

(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.

02_18_Travel_TigerReserve.jpg

(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.

 

Abu Dhabi: The New Cultural Capital of the East you Need to Visit ASAP

For CheapOAir Miles Away. February 2018.

Abu Dhabi is the capital and second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Known primarily as an opulent business hub in the Middle East, this barren desert-turned-metropolis is not all about over-the-top hotels, gold suks, and designer shopping malls. With some of the world’s best museums, heritage sites, and year-round festivals, Abu Dhabi is emerging as a top destination for culture trippers. Here are just a few cultural experiences you shouldn’t miss out on when in Abu Dhabi.

Read the full story on For CheapOAir Miles Away

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

 

Why Kerala (India) Is Our New Favorite Place to Escape Winter

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

The lush state of Kerala, located in the southern peninsula of India, is touted as “God’s own Country.” With such a bold tourism slogan, you can expect the bar to be set pretty high. Well, Kerala does not disappoint. It’s filled with pristine beaches, houseboats floating in clear backwaters, spicy Indian food, and fun-loving people. It’s perfect for a yoga retreat, an adventure holiday, or an eco-friendly vacation. Now that’s a pretty divine package. If you haven’t added Kerala to your travel plans to escape the frigid winter, here’s why you need to do so right away.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog