Dominicanizando (Dominicanizing)

I have spent the last week immersed in Dominican culture. And I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to do so especially as my volunteer project begins in full swing next week. I feel I will be better able to serve patients in the community if I have a more in depth understanding of their lifestyle.

Before I delve into some of the experiences of this week, I want to take a moment to dedicate this blog entry to my friend Fermín. Fermín and I worked together at University Hospital in Cincinnati for three years. While I haven't seen him in person in a few years, we have maintained contact via Facebook and Skype. He followed this blog and often sent me messages of encouragement. When he learned I was going to his home country of the Dominican Republic, he was the first to reach out, offering contacts, advice, and unwavering support. He was scheduled to come to the DR himself in June for his brother's wedding in Punta Cana. I recently learned that Fermín passed away Monday night in his sleep- from what I read, a heart attack was suspected. He was in his 40s and had a wife and two young boys. This is an unexpected and incredible loss for his family, friends and community and I too am feeling the loss as I explore his home country. Please pray for healing hearts…

Most of this past week has been spent hanging out with Primi and her friends, Yake, Rosi, Celinee, and Yari. Wednesday night, we went over her Yake's house for a meal of “papas con pollo,” (potatoes with chicken), a delicious chicken and potato stew. Primi and her friends are all strong-willed, big hearted women, and also dedicated and talented softball players. They also talk extremely fast, as is characteristics of Dominicans and particularly in this part of the country. I'm embarrassed to say that as much Spanish as I thought I could speak, I could only understand some 60-70% of what was being said that night amongst each other. As they participated in a heated softball politics debate with a male softball community leader (poor guy was outnumbered!), we passed around a bottle of mamajuana. Mamajuana is a bottle containing special allegedly “medicinal” roots and herbs. The bottle is filled then refilled several times with the liquor of one's choice- in this case the girls preferred a sweet wine and when that ran out, some clear rum. Either way, the result is a sweet and herby flavor which might easily lead to intoxication if imbibed too quickly.

Mamajuana, both homemade and commercialized

The next day, the same group piled into the back of Celinee's pick-up truck and headed about 40 minutes away to Bayahibe, yet another beautiful Dominican beach. The water was clear and calm, similar to Boca Chica, and the girls promptly set up camp in the shade. In general, it seems Dominicans shy away from the sun and prefer to bask in the shade of palm trees. That morning, before leaving for the beach, I attempted to recreate one of my family's pasta recipes. We took the pot of pasta to the beach and had a picnic- didn't quite taste the same but the girls seemed to enjoy it anyway, especially when accompanied by sips of mamajuana. The sunset from the truck bed on the way home was also amazing.


Tired from la playa


That night, Yari took me out to el “play,” otherwise known as an evening softball game (baseball is usually played during the day and softball at night). We sat up on a concrete structure behind home plate and cheered on both teams. Not too much soccer in this country- it's all about the baseball and softball, and this week is the national finals!

El Play

Friday morning, Yari took me out to her neighboring hometown of La Otra Banda (it took me a while to figure out that “The Other Band” was actually the name of a place, not a musical group or an event…). Her family lives on a farm and keeps a variety of animals including dogs, cats, goats, sheep, chickens, roosters (used for cock-fighting on Sundays), cows and horses. Yari asked one of her cousins to saddle up one of the horses and soon we were off on a ride through the surrounding sugarcane fields. Sugarcane is the main crop in this part of the island, and the fields are often burned due to wasp or pest infestations that make it impossible to harvest the cane. The result of burning is also a richer soil to plant next years crop. As we rode through the fields, the sweet smell of burnt sugar permeated the air. Later that morning we went back out to the fields on a moto to find the perfect sugarcane to sample. Yari knew just which field had the ripest cane, traipsed into the field, and used a machete to both chop and peel the cane so we could try some. The sugar was intense, but still a delicious snack, much better than processed sugar like cotton candy or Pixie Stix. =) Also delicious was the fruit I tried upon returning to the farm. Known as the “cajuil americana” or “American cashew,” it was like no fruit I had ever tried in the states.

Cajuil Americano

I was happy to have company on this horse

Burnt and fresh caña

Yari delving deep into the cane for the perfect sample

And then you peel it...

And then you eat it!


Later in the afternoon, Primi and I met up with Yake downtown for a free Zumba class. Unfortunately, as is relatively common in this country, the power went out. Set on getting some exercise, we headed over to the basilica where there is a lovely walking/jogging trail that surrounds the church property. Not a bad alternative to Zumba!

Sweaty but happy =)

Friday night was time for another “play.” We piled onto the moto and headed out to another softball field. As we drove through the streets of town, music was playing from houses, cars, bars and colmados (corner stores). Riding on a moto in a Dominican town on a Friday night feels a bit like driving through a jukebox that keeps changing tunes, and my friends seemed to know the lyrics to every one. I had a discussion with Primi about the safety of motos in the DR (or lack there of), and while she couldn't excuse the safety factor, she did have an interesting point of view. As she explained, Dominicans begin riding motos in the womb. When the mothers go into labor they are taken to the hospital on a moto. After the baby is born, they are taken to the house from the hospital on a moto (can you imagine riding a motorcycle just after giving birth, or even worse, having a C-section?). As small children, they are carted around regularly on motos, sometime with a family of five. Eventually, at the young age of 11, 10, maybe even 7, they are taught how to drive a moto and the process continues. It's a part of life. Fascinating.

Yari's grandmother and her cousins

Saturday Primi borrowed an extra moto and a few of us went out to swim in a local river. While the river was pretty and refreshing, the most beautiful part was the drive out to the river, several miles down a dirt road through the bucolic Dominican countryside, rolling green hills, palm trees, and mountains in the back drop.

Having girl talk on the blanket

The beautiful Dominican countryside

After the river and a quick shower, I gave a women's health presentation at the conservative “Church of the Prophecy,” next door to Primi's house. I was asked to cover my shoulders to go into the church, and what waited for me inside was a group of men, women and children with a wealth of questions about sexuality, vaginal and breast health, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Over two hours of lively discussion and education later, the group stood around me and prayed simultaneously, each offering their own prayers up to God. It was a little surreal, but they seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to openly discuss topics that are often taboo within the culture and the church. I gave a similar talk yesterday in another church about an hour's moto ride north of Higuey, was received with equal enthusiasm and even got interviewed for the local news as I answered questions about breast cancer!

Sunday, I paid another visit to Santo Domingo (known more often simply as “La Capital”) where my friend Marlon showed me his friend's property complete with gardens, beautiful swimming pools, and even a natural pool in a cave underground. The place is often used as a wedding venue and with good reason!

A natural underground swimming pool

Afterwards we went back to Boca Chica (I can't get enough of beaches, I know), went back to his place to clean up, and then headed down to the Colonial District. Every Sunday night in a plaza among some colonial ruins, locals gather together to dance to the music of a band that plays “son,” old styles of salsa, merengue and boleros. While dancing of course was fun, it was even more entertaining to watch the old couples swaying to the music of their time, singing along to the classics, and occasionally pausing to cheer when the local baseball team scored on the big screen TV next to the plaza. When the band took a break, we watched some folkloric dancers in costume perform a few traditional Dominican dances.

Last night, back in Higuey after my second women's health presentation, Primi and I stopped by the farm again where she promptly jumped into a game of Dominos, the most popular game outside of baseball/softball in the Dominican Republic. IN the evening we gathered again in Celinee's house for what the girls claimed was Dominican style spaghetti (more like macaroni and cheese, but yummy either way).

Not quite blending in, but keeping a smile...

I feel like this week I've found myself somewhere between a tourist and a Dominican. I look up from the moto at the tour buses taking groups of “gringos” from Punta Cana around the Dominican countryside, and I realize right now I no more fit in with this group than I do among the groups of Dominicans I've met. I've been told my Spanish accent is changing, and now has a touch of Dominican in addition to the American, Mexican and Peruvian influences. I am somewhere in the middle, and I think since today marks my three week anniversary of arriving in this country, that this feeling is a healthy one.



A Start to Life on the Island

I know I'm way overdue for blogging and I am missing it dearly. There is so much to write about the last 2 weeks, and now I am going to have to cut down on some of the details and hit only the highlights. I forgot how much blogging helps me to process my experiences, and I can say honestly today that I really do need to process them. Feel free to skip the text and let the pictures tell the story… =)

I arrived in the Dominican Republic on January 7. My flight was into Santiago, and as I had no connections in Santiago itself, I reached out to the couchsurfing community ( if you want to know more about this). I took a 1/2 hour taxi ride from the airport to my host Paula's house, which ended up being a sort of commune for about 12 locals. All of the housemates were super nice artistic types, and Paula herself was a licensed massage therapist who also practiced art therapy, music therapy and acupuncture. Her most recent project was learning the violin and she had purchased a cheap green instrument that she asked me to tune up and give her a few pointers. What ensued, of course, was a “music night,” jam session with another violinist and a guitarist- a nice way to spend my second night in the DR.

Music night!

Paula took me out during the day to run errands. The primary mode of transportation in Santiago is either motoconchos (taxi motorcycles) or actual car conchos. The car conchos have a set route and sort of function like buses in that people get out and in them all along the route. Except there are no official stops. And they are tiny cars. And they cram 9 people in them sometimes. So there is often a stranger sitting in your lap. But hey, 20 pesos (50 cents) gets you where you need to go!

After a couple nights in Santiago, I took a guagua (the Dominican word for bus or public transport minivan) up to Monte Cristi on the northwest coast of the island, near Haiti. Monte Cristi is the town where I will be spending much of my time, as it is the location of the volunteer house for Timmy Global Health, the organization with which I am volunteering. It is a town significantly smaller and poorer than the bigger cities of Santiago and Santo Domingo. From what I have been told, Monte Cristi used to be quite wealthy and prosperous. In the 1950s something happened in the town that offended the dictator of the time, Trujillo, and much assistance from the federal government was withheld, leading to an economic depression. Since then, even long after Trujillo's time, the town has struggled to regain its prosperity and the northwest remains one of the poorest regions in the country.

What the town itself lacks in economic resources is a stark contrast to the wealth of natural beauty just outside Monte Cristi. Arguably, some of the most beautiful beaches in the country are up along the northwest coast and, unlike the more touristy beach towns of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, the coastline near Monte Cristi is a national park, protected from the construction of hotels, resorts, restaurants, etc.

My first view of El Morro National Park in Monte Cristi

I am finally getting my fill of sunsets- of the dozens of pictures I've taken, here are a few.


The first person I met in Monte Cristi was José, a Peace Corps volunteer who is now the medical project coordinator for Timmy in the Dominican Republic. José lives in the volunteer house just a few blocks from the main street in Monte Cristi, where I will also be staying intermittently during my time volunteering. Last week I volunteered on another medical brigade, similar to the one I did previously in Santo Domingo, Ecuador, with a group of doctors, nurses, PA/medical and pharmacy students. We spent the week seeing over 400 patients who live in surrounding communities called bateyes. Bateyes are historically housing developments built to house migrant farm workers who worked in the sugarcane and and banana fields in the DR. Today, they are the homes to some of the poorest people in the Dominican Republic, including groups of both Dominicans and Haitians. Many bateyes have no running water or electricity, and the demand for basic human needs is great. Over the past decade and a half I have travelled to several poor communities in Latin America, including ones in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Peru, and no where I have I seen poverty like I did in the Haitian batey I visited with a few Timmy volunteers on the first day.


It was a really good week with the medical team, a typical brigade working in less than ideal conditions, getting creative with use of spaces (everything from schools to churches to dance halls), treating acute and chronic illnesses of truly patient patients that are sometimes difficult to find in the United States- the kind that will wait all day to see a doctor only to get a few tablets of Tylenol, and still thank you profusely. I was once again able to assist in the area of women's health, and performed pelvic exams on many women behind sheet barriers in the corner of the rooms. Lots of work, but high spirits all around, and we had some time to hang out in the ocean in the late afternoons and evenings. I'll let the pictures take the story from there…


I had to leave the brigade half a day early to bus down to the capital, Santo Domingo, to pick up my friend Sandra from the airport. Sandra is a “pana full” (the Dominican expression for “best friend”) who I met at the clinic I worked at in Austin. Despite the fact that she had a major arm fracture and subsequent surgery less than 3 weeks ago, she decided to keep her plane ticket and come visit me (she's one tough cookie!). We had a great weekend weekend together, walking around the historical district of Santo Domingo, checking out the nightlife (yes, she somehow managed to dance a beautiful merengue, even with a broken arm!), and of course spending some quality beach time in the neighboring towns of Boca Chica and Juan Dolio. We met a new Dominican friend, Marlon, who was gracious enough to drive us out to the beach. He was good company and we were also grateful to have private transportation as I'm not sure how the guagua or concho transport would have been for Sandra's arm. Our three days together flew by, and I was sad to see her go, but happy for the time I had to reconnect with my dear friend.


After Sandra left yesterday, I took another guagua to the town of Higuey to reunite with Primi, a friend off mine whom I haven't seen since I studied abroad in the DR in 2005. Yesterday was a religious holiday in the Dominican Republic, and Higuey happened to be the place where thousands of Dominicans made a pilgrimage to visit the basilica and ask Nuestra Señora de Altagracia (Our Lady of High Grace?) for miracles. As it was pretty chaotic downtown near the basilica, Primi asked me to have the bus let me off at a park just outside of town. I waited in the park for two minutes and then, there she was, on a moto, ready to pick up me and my luggage. It seems that really our only form of transportation around here is via moto. I am as careful as I can, and Primi who has been driving a moto since she was 11 years old laughs at me when I ask to use her helmet, but hands it right over! What can I say… I value my brain!

I am currently writing this blog from Primi's kitchen while she is off at work. She lives in a humble 3 room apartment (by 3 rooms, I mean kitchen, bedroom and bathroom), but her heart is bigger than a mansion. We've been sharing her double bed, in the good company of her cuddly chihuahua puppy, Blanca.


Last night we went into town to check out the basilica and the festivities. There were blankets, pillows and hammocks strewn out around the cathedral and people were lined up to get into sanctuary, lighting candles all around, and sleeping in corners on the floor. In the blocks surrounding the basilica there was a carnival festival with rides you couldn't have paid me to get on, and a little concert venue next to the baseball field. I sat with Primi and her friends in the bleachers, eating an empanada and listening to the merengue music until I could barely keep my eyes open. I slept well last night!


Today has been a slow day. We went out this morning to one of the farms where Primi works (she is a consultant for livestock, from what I gather) and then came back to her place where she made a delicious lunch of rice, salad, salted codfish and avocado. Then she showed me how to work her little washing machine which she picked up and put in the shower. I'm definitely immersed in the culture right now, and so far feeling pretty good. One thing I have to mention is how FAST Dominicans talk- I find myself struggling to understand much of what is said between the slang words, missing consonants on the end of words, and fast pace. Especially here in Higuey. Makes me feel that my Spanish is pretty bad…

Whew, that was a lot to write. Primi is working on scheduling me to give a few health talks at some local clinics and schools over the next couple days, so will report back on that soon. I plan on blogging more frequently so the entries aren't quite so long… Just heard Primi's moto in the garage. More soon…



Let’s Go Travel!

Back into the blogging… In the time I have been away, I had the unique experience of having one of my blog entries go “viral,” something which I never anticipated would happen, and I honestly wasn't sure how to react. I ended up removing my other posts for the time being, just until the popularity of the site died down, which it appears to be doing. I will likely put the posts back up in the next few weeks, and do plan on continuing to share my experiences though I may have a few more followers than before. I am writing this entry from Santiago, Dominican Republic, where I have been for less than 24 hours so there is not much to share yet. I can say that the weather is literally 80-100 degrees warmer (Farenheit of course) than what I left behind in New York yesterday and in Cincinnati the day before. For this, I am quite grateful! =) More to be posted about the DR soon!

Moving on…

A few people have asked me throughout this travel experience, how did you do it? How did you manage to quit your job, sell most of your stuff, and plan out such a trip? To those friends, I promised I'd put together a blog post about it. I am sure there are many ways to go about doing this, depending on individual circumstances, but if I were giving myself advice and planning this trip again, here are the steps I would suggest:

1. Make the decision to travel. This step is perhaps the most difficult one, and requires some reflection. It involves examining the circumstances in your life, your job, your finances, family, etc. Is traveling even feasible right now? How is the job market in your field? Are people depending on you at home right now? Timing is everything.

2. Decide when, where and for how long. For me, this step was largely dictated by my budget, how long would it take me to save, how far away could my savings take me and for how long could they last? It is a good idea to figure out the answers to these questions before starting step three, because people will surely be asking.

3. Tell everyone you know. Well, almost everyone. This step is very important because, at least for me, it can be really easy to chicken out of such a big life change. I started talking about my plans to several friends and family members who helped me to stay excited and motivated. At this point, I would still avoid posting your plans on social media networks, especially if you're concerned about your place of employment finding out. Also advise your friends to keep it more or less on the down low.

4. Start saving! For this step, you will probably need to figure out a way to cut corners. For example, I realized in order to save money I would have to get a housemate or two to cut down on rent expenses. I cooked at home rather than going out when possible. I tried not to buy anything new that I didn't absolutely need. And I opened a separate bank account called “travel savings” and didn't let myself ever withdraw money from it.

5. Network. A few months before you decide you are leaving, email everyone you know and explain what you are doing, where you are going and when. Ask if they can put you in touch with anybody in the places you plan on going and ask for those people's contact information. You will be very surprised how small this world actually is. After you tell your boss you are leaving, you can also post a message on social media asking for your friends' input. Be sure and stay in touch with the contacts you've made as the trip approaches. (I even made an Excel file with my full list of contacts!) is also a great website for making local contacts and finding (free!) places to stay.

6. Put together a flexible timeline. Based on the contacts you have made, decide more or less what your travel path will be. Buying plane tickets can be tricky. In general, the earlier you buy them, the cheaper the price, but the less flexible you can then be in your travels. You may end up wanting to spend more time in a place and don't want to be restricted by a scheduled flight. Of course, flights can always be changed, but sometimes this ends up costing more than the original ticket. My suggestion is to buy as few plane flights as you can get away with, and, to me, one way tickets are definitely worth the option of leaving your return trip open-ended. Buses or trains are also often a comfortable, more flexible, more scenic and significantly cheaper alternative to flying, if time is not a concern.

7. Put in your notice at work. Depending on your job, you may need to give a few months or just a few weeks notice. Leave on good terms, explaining that your choice to leave is not out of unhappiness, but rather out of your desire to travel at this time. If you think you would like to return to your current position, or one within the same company, leave on extra good terms, and explain that you'd like to be considered for rehire in the future. Having your “paid time off” hours paid out at the end can also help you buy your first plane ticket, so take that into consideration when using your vacation hours before leaving. On a side note, you may be lucky enough to have a job that allows you to take a sabbatical or a long leave of absence to travel- if this is the case, make sure you discuss it with your boss sometime around step number 2 or 3.

8. Start sorting, donating, disposing, selling and sorting. I recommend starting this process as soon as possible as it will take some time, depending on how much stuff you have (and you always have more than you think!) What you decide to keep and get rid of is a personal decision. I ended up getting rid of the large majority of my furniture and appliances, and keeping my kitchen stuff because I love to cook. I pared down my clothing as much as I felt I could at the time. Craigslist is a wonderful website for selling your stuff now and for buying stuff later. Remember, stuff is stuff, and it's incredibly freeing to let it go.

9. Start packing. Even if you aren't a list maker, make a list! There are lots of good websites that give sample packing lists, or you can always contact me to get mine if you need help. You may need to acquire some new items- I would say your backpack (or suitcase) and footwear are the two most important, and worth the money to find ones that fit you right. Make sure to leave enough time for these items to ship if you decide to order them online. Pack light, if it all possible in a carry-on sized bag no matter how long you plan to travel.

10. Get going! Now comes the fun part- actually doing it! Remember to stay flexible, knowing that things will in no way go exactly as you planned them, knowing that you will be constantly planning as you go, and knowing that the world is not nearly as big as you think. Trust your instincts, keep an open mind, allow contacts to lead you to other contacts, have a plan B when possible, and let your heart lead you where you need to go next.

More soon! =)


Rio- A Beautiful End to this Leg of the Journey

I'm beginning this blog entry on the plane flight from São Paulo to Houston, which means I may or may not get it done by the time I arrive in the US. It's a long flight, but I'm fighting off sleep right now. It's so crazy how fast the past 3 1/2 months have gone by.

To continue the story… So, I didn't actually get to Rio the day I said I would. Reason being, Rio had more rainfall in one day than it typically has in one month- 7 inches! This coupled with a not-so-sophisticated drainage system meant for some serious flooding both in the city and on the roads leading to the city, including the one that the buses take from São Paulo. Luckily, I managed to bump forward my hostel reservation in Rio by one day and lost no money in the process.

I enjoyed my extra day in São Paulo, especially walking some more around the area and visiting the SP Contemporary Art Museum. I was surprised that the museum had free entry, and even more surprised to see how empty it was. Six floors of some really cool exhibits and I only saw one other visitor the entire time I was there. The museum was eerily quiet, populated only with 2-3 bored-looking security guards on each floor. I asked if this deserted environment was normal and the guard replied that yes, the only visitors these days were the occasional tourist and elementary school group. Pretty sad, as I honestly thought this museum was more interesting than the more popular MASP.

View of São Paulo from the Contemporary Art Museum

That evening, I reunited with my friend Elaine the two of us met up with a couple friends of hers. We started the evening at a local bar known to have the best coxinhas in São Paulo- and they were incredible! We ended up checking out a cover band at another bar- mostly American music, but the band was talented and the company was good.

Elaine and Me


Early the next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and took the metro to the bus terminal to catch a 9:15 bus to Rio. After an uneventful ride, I arrived and caught another bus from Rio's terminal to my hostel in Copacabana. The hostel was definitely the most expensive one I've stayed in so far, but the 70 reais (about $30) per night was worth it for the clean, safe accommodations and for the location, about 3 blocks from the famous Copacabana beach. Even though the weather never became true “beach weather,” for this midwesterner, a beach is a beach!

Beaches are always beautiful

My first evening in Rio, I met up with a local couchsurfer who graciously showed me a little bit around Lapa, a Bohemian artist district and a popular area for night life in Rio. We walked through the “street party,” complete with musicians, venders, and dancing, checked out the famous tiled staircase (the cops stationed at the top and bottom of the stairs did little to deter the cocaine addicts I witnessed on our way down), and ended up at another forró dancing club. José, my couchsurfer buddy, ended up being quite the forró dancer and we had a great time.

Lapa Steps

I met another couchsurfer in the morning and took a tour of the beautiful municipal theater in downtown Rio, per his suggestion.

Teatro Municipal


I then navigated the Rio public transportation over to the Corcorvado, the mountain housing the famous white Christ statue overlooking Rio. It was there that I met a new friend, Jimmy, a New Yorker who was in Rio for the month visiting friends. Jimmy and I rode in a van up the hill to the statue which was every bit as magnificent as it appears in the movies. Not to mention the view was spectacular. The people-watching was actually an extra perk- the only way to get a full picture of the Christ from the base was to lay on the ground. Of course the resulting pictures were not the most flattering from a double chin perspective but they were still entertaining =).

Monkeys on the way up the Corcovado

The view from the top of the mountain

The best angle for picture taking!

Jimmy and Me

That evening, I reunited with Valerie and Muz, my friends from back in Quito. I joined them and some of their friends in a visit to a well-known samba school in one of the favelas (shanty-towns) of Rio. In Brazil, during the several months leading up to February's famous Carnaval events, the samba schools who will be competing in Carnaval begin their weekly rehearsals, and open them to the public (for a fee of course). The event at the Mangueira school was so much fun- amazing drummers in the samba band plus bright colored costumes and men, women, and children who could move their feet and butts like I'd never seen before.

With Muz and Valerie

Stay clear of the sweat! Samba is hard work! =)

Yes they actually danced in those heels!

The following day, I started my morning with a long beach walk, one of many I would enjoy over the course of the weekend, and had brunch with Valerie and Muz on a peninsula where a military fort is also located. The best part of brunch, aside from the delicious prosciutto salad, was the view of the Copacabana beach and the stand-up paddleboaters. We headed over to an Ipanema street fair with arts and crafts, known as the “Hippie Fair” in the afternoon.

In the evening I met up with a couple from the hostel, a German and Brazilian guy, who live in Germany together but were visiting the Brazilian's family for the holidays. Over beers and picanha at a local boteco (for those that have read my blogs before, this vocabulary should start to sound familiar!), we had a long and very enlightening discussion of political, cultural and economic differences and similarities between our countries.

Beer and conversation with some great guys!

Finally, my last day in Rio was filled with more beach walking, sunbathing (the sun finally came out for a few minutes!), lunch with Jimmy in Ipanema, snacks and conversation with Valerie and Muz in the evening, and an overnight bus back to São Paulo. I was hoping for a sunset in Rio (those of you who have followed this blog also know I will do anything to catch a good sunset), but instead, I experienced a peaceful moment on the beach, watching the rain on the horizon, the orange of a sun setting somewhere, the lights of a favela flickering on, and all the while eating a delicious mango. Life is good.

Favela in the distance


My final 36 hours in São Paulo were spent with my dear friends, Anna and Marcel, who I am already missing. Marcel took us out for sushi for dinner and between the three of us we finished a huge boat! São Paulo has the largest Japanese population next to Japan, so the quality of the sushi was no surprise. The next day, Anna was off of work and took me to Villa Madalena, a neighborhood which up to that point I only knew at night. We wandered around the quaint streets, stopped in some quirky little shops, and checked out “Batman Alley,” known for its everchanging graffiti artwork (I guess batman was among the original graffiti but today, no longer makes his presence known). Marcel drove me to the airport after work, and this epoch of my trip has come to an end.

Sushi anyone?

The most clandestine phone booth ever (on a corner in Villa Madalena)

Fejoada, a typical Brazilian dish only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays, my last meal in Brazil!

Such cool graffiti!

Our last coffee together!

I am actually finishing this blog entry after a few days of being home, and I have had time to reflect a bit since then. What have I learned so far about myself as a solo backpacker? Over these last few months, I have experienced three different kinds of travel activities. The first is volunteering. The second is visiting with friends, and friends of friends, aka hanging with the locals. And the third was “playing the tourist.” I have learned that the third activity was for me the most difficult and draining. As a single female traveling, I sometimes found myself in situations where going out alone was not only a lonely prospect, but also a potentially unsafe idea. I found that my extroversion served me well in terms of meeting fellow travelers to do things with, but that sometimes this process became exhausting when it was a necessity. I also now understand that I tend to feel the happiest when I am staying busy and involved in an activity that serves people, or when I am in the company of the local people and delving a little deeper into the culture of a country. Learning this, has made me consider modifying my next leg of the journey. My original plan was to spend a month in the Dominican Republic and then a month each in Italy, France, and Spain for a total of three months in Europe. I am now working on finalizing an opportunity to serve with Timmy Global Health as a long-term volunteer in a community in the Dominican Republic, where I will hopefully be working with a Dominican doctor seeing patients and developing heath projects in the community. This commitment would be at a minimum until the end of February, with the potential of even a few more months. Europe is still on the horizon at this point, but my time there will likely be shortened, and I am okay with this. I think I may end up taking Europe in pieces, on a series of smaller trips over the next several years.

Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog entries and in this way have shared in a part of my journey. I look forward to continuing my writing in the Dominican Republic sometime mid-January.



Top Fifteen Interesting Observations About Brazil and Brazilians (In no particular order…)

1. Ice cold beer. They don't mess around in Brazil. Literally the beer has frost on or sometimes in the bottle. And typically a big bottle is served in a koozie along with small cups for the whole table to share. Which means the last sip of beer is just as cold as the first. Awesome.

2. Night time showers. Everyone showers at night. Sometimes in the morning too. I have yet to adopt this night time bathing routine for fear of frightening people in the morning with my bed head.

3. Coxinhas. Cream cheese and seasoned shredded chicken surrounded by a mass of fried, breaded dough. Enough said.

4. Ham and cheese on french bread for breakfast. Sometimes served with cream cheese, butter or jam. It's called a “misto quente.” Amazing.

5. “Oba!” A common expression of pleasure in Brazil. I thought it was only exclaimed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It makes me smile every time I hear it.

6. Diminutives. Brazilians like to diminituize everything with the expression “-inho/a” at the ends of words for emphasis. Examples: “bonitinha” (pretty), “fofinha” (cute), “coitadinho” (poor little thing), “jeitinho” (way of solving a problem).

7. Kisses on the cheek. The number of kisses varies depending on the city you're in. Particularly confusing for a foreigner. And this has made for many awkward moments of people diving in for the kiss on the other cheek when you're not expecting it.

8. Odd moments for congratulations. Cat calling females is pretty typical all over Latin America in my experience. But here I've noticed rather than than the simple “Hey beautiful,” Brazilian men say “parabems!” or “congratulations!” while scanning a female up and down. Seems like a strange way to pay a compliment, especially since it might be more appropriate to compliment the woman's parents for their aesthetically pleasing gene combination.

9. Skimpy swimsuits. Regardless of your body type, on the beach in Brazil it is not only acceptable but also seemingly expected to cover the least amount of your body. This applies to men and women alike.

I think the man in this picture was a foreigner

And this pic deserved to make it in two blog posts!

10. Shoddy napkins. Seriously, the napkins served in restaurants in Brazil have got to be some of the most useless pieces of paper I've ever used. The quality is more like the paper used to pick up a donut in a bakery. The only good use I found at the table was making napkin roses…

11. Brigadeiros. Chewy balls of semisweet chocolate and sweetened condensed milk rolled in chocolate sprinkles. Need I say more?

The cooking process

12. The Brazilian “thumbs-up.” While the thumbs up may be a globally universal sign of affirmation, Brazilians use it abundantly. It can mean everything from “yes,” to “I agree,” to “hey, thanks for letting me in that line of crazy traffic.” Thumbs up!

13. Sweet avocados. Yes, I realize the avocado is actually a fruit. And fruits, by nature, are typically sweet. But Brazil is the only place I've been where people find salted avocados as in guacamole, on sandwiches or salads to be strange. Instead, the preferred method for avocado preparation is to blend it with milk and sugar into a sweet pudding textured dessert. I was reluctant to tamper with my taste buds in such a way, but actually the dish was quite good!

14. PDA (“Public Display of Affection” for those who are unfamiliar with the acronym). Brazilians are very affectionate and very hands-on. This affection extends into the public arena between lovers who seem quite oblivious to the rest of the world. It's not uncommon to see a couple heavily making out on the subway, in the middle of the street, on the dance floor, in a museum, wherever. Took some getting used to on my part.

15. Botecos. Botecos are essentially small bars with tables extending out onto the sidewalk and sometimes street. In the evenings they are usually packed with friends sharing beers and appetizers and are one of my favorite places to just hang out with people in Brazil.

1/6/14 Note from Author: I am overwhelmed, pleasantly surprised and flattered by the number of comments I've received on this post in the last couple weeks. I started off replying to everyone, but there have been too many recently to keep up. This blog was originally (and still is) meant as a means to share with my family and friends at home my experiences of traveling abroad, and this particular entry was the first one that seems to have gone, as some of you have stated in your comments, “viral.” I had an amazing time in Brazil, and enjoyed visiting several cities in this beautiful country including Foz do Iguacu, Curitiba, São Paulo, Campinas, Vitória, Brasilia and Rio. I have enjoyed very much reading all of your feedback, and in response I'd like to say if I had to pick one more thing to add to my list about Brazil and Brazilians (aside from the feijoada, caipirinhas, pão de queijo, etc.), it would be to mention their warm and open hearts. I am no longer in Brazil, and will be leaving home in a few days for the Dominican Republic, where my travel blogging will continue over the next few months. Who knows, maybe I'll have to continue these top 15 lists in each place I go? Muito obrigada!


Brasilia: Modernity and Friends

I feel like lately I've been feeling less and less motivation to write this blog. But, sort of like going to the gym, every time I write, I feel better, like I have spilled out the contents of my heart and mind to make space for new adventures. Plus, when I come home, if people ask me how my trip was, I can refer them directly to my blog =).

I spent the last week in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Brasilia has actually only been the capital since 1960 when the president, Juscelino Kubitschek, decided to move the capital from Rio on the coast to the center of the country. He contracted Lucio Costa to design the city and his close friend Oscar Niemeyer as the chief architect. The city itself is in the shape of an airplane with a north wing and a south wing, and the government buildings are situated in the nose of the plane. All of the streets are numbered on a grid and most of the streets look very much the same, which makes it easy to get lost if you don't know your numbers. The architecture of the buildings downtown is fascinating and it was neat just to drive around and check out the structures. My favorite was the cathedral- I've been in tons of cathedrals and churches on this trip, but this one was by far the most modern and interesting.

From the inside

Unique bridge

A cool modern art museum

Having fun in the museum!

In the 60s, the city was turned into a peninsula via a dammed up man-made lake, which was also quite beautiful. Throughout the city are lots of green spaces, parks and playgrounds. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the aesthetics of Brasilia- very different than the beautiful colonial towns like Quito and Cuzco, but still quite pretty in its own modernity.

Nicolandia! (I swear I'm not obsessed with my name!)

The lake

Of course, like everywhere I've been so far, what actually makes a place special for me is its people. I spent the week in the home of some close friends of my family, Ricardo, Elaine and their beautiful 22-month-old daughter Mari. We had a lovely time visiting, cooking meals together, and playing with Mari who loved greeting me in the morning with a smile and a cry of “Col-eeee!” We explored Brasilia in Ricardo and Elaine's free time, visiting parks and restaurants and spending some time with their extended families. When they were busy, I was surrounded by plenty of other friends in Brasilia, mostly contacts of my fathers, and I felt very welcome in the city.

Soooo cute!

Playing Spidey

Up close and personal

Sushi with Ricardo's family

Buddies in Brasilia!

One evening I went with Bruno and his friend to another forró night down on the lake. The atmosphere was equally as beautiful as the beach forró in Vitoria, complete with Christmas lights, a gazebo, and a fantastic band. Another night I met up with some couchsurfers in town, had some drinks, and went to a salsa dancing party. Other times I met up with friends for drinks and snacks at local botecos and restaurants. I am so grateful for the kind people of Brasilia who welcomed me amidst their busy lives.

On Saturday, Ricardo was off of work and was gracious enough to take me on a drive 2 1/2 hours out of town through the Brazilian countryside to the picturesque town of Pirenópolis. We spent the day having a delicious lunch of “picanha” (the best cut of meat in Brazil), exploring the shops and quaint streets of the town, and even checking out a beautiful waterfall just outside of town where the cool waters were very refreshing. The waterfall reminded me of the greenbelt in Austin, but with much more water than has been in recent years- I could have spent the whole day there easily!


My last night in Brazil I attended a Christmas concert at a local church where several of the musicians I had met throughout the week were performing in the orchestra. The service was really nice, and reminded me just how close Christmas is- it feels so surreal being so far from home and in such tropical weather. After the concert, a large group of us went out for pizza and had a great time.

At the Christmas concert

Feliz Natal Mari!

Monday morning before leaving Brasilia I went with Mari and Elaine to the National Park of Brasilia to swim in the mineral water pool. The water was pretty cold, but it was still a nice swim. Lunch with Ricardo, then it was off to the airport to come back to São Paulo with Anna and Marcel for a few days.

These past few days I've explored São Paulo on foot, and am really appreciating a city so easily accessible by pubic transportation. I went to the MASP art museum today. The paintings and exhibits inside were nice but my favorite exhibit was actually for free outside the museum. It was a series of photographs of places all over the world taken from an aerial view. Each photograph had a description and an interesting statistic about world populations, food distributions, environmental impacts, etc. At the end there was a large floor map where visitors were encouraged to remove their shoes and explore. I happily complied.

Tonight we're going to see the Lion King, yes, in Portuguese, and I'm super excited. Either tonight later or tomorrow morning I am going to take a bus to Rio where I will spend the next few days. Just one more week in Brazil, and I intend to make the most of it!


Music, dancing, beaches and more

As I look at the date of this blog, I realized I have a mere 15 days left on this portion of my journey before breaking in Ohio for Christmas. It's incredible how fast time goes by. I also realize that I haven't had nearly as many opportunities as I would like to do health care volunteering. But I am comforted by the fact that I have another week of volunteering set up in the Dominican Republic in January- really looking forward to it!

Back to Campinas. The night I posted my last blog entry, I was on my way out the door to a local Italian restaurant which features weekly chorinho music. Chorinho is a complicated but quite palatable style of traditional Brazilian music featuring instruments in the guitar family (I'm ashamed to say I don't know the names of all of them but there was definitely a mandolin). There was also a fantastic flute player and a clarinetist visiting the local university, Unicampe, all the way from Alaska- he sat in spontaneously and blew everyone away. He actually performed again the following evening at a recital at Unicampe. To backtrack a little bit, for those of you who don't know, back in 2008 my father was granted a Fulbright scholarship to go down to Campinas and teach at Unicampe for a semester (my mom got to go too!). Since then, he has been back to Brazil several times and it is through him that I have met most of my contacts in Brazil. Consequently, most if not all of my contacts are either musicians or married to musicians, so be prepared that most of my blog entries from here on out will include live music descriptions =).

Chorinho band

Nothing like a good photo bomb by a waiter =)

Kathy and Maurice

My last day in Campinas, Kathy and I took a little day trip to a town known as Pereira, famous for some of its artisan arts and crafts (the word in Spanish is “artesania,” in Portuguese “artesanato”). We enjoyed walking around and shopping a bit before I had to head back to Campinas to take the bus into São Paulo.

I arrived back at Marcel and Anna's in time to find Anna all made up with her hair up in curlers. Turns out, her musical was up for another award and there was a black-tie awards ceremony downtown that evening. The good news? I was invited too! The bad news? This mochileira doesn't even own, let alone consider packing black-tie attire in her backpack. The good news? Anna and I are fairly close to the same size in both clothes and shoes, and Anna, as an actress, is a professional when it comes to applying make-up. Problem solved!

The event began at 10pm on a Wednesday night, typical for Brazil, and the steak dinner wasn't served until 11:30. The venue was super fancy, and the ceremony complete with some mediocre musical acts and a magic show. Anna's musical unfortunately did not win this particular award, but we all still had a great time mingling with other actors, singers, directors, producers, and even some big-names in the Brazilian musical theater scene.

These two are pretty famous in Brazilian musical theater

Thursday morning, I navigated my way to the São Paulo airport which is about a 2 hour walking, subway, bus commute away from the city itself. My flight was to Vitória, a coastal town a few hundred kilometers north of Rio in the state of Espíritu Santo. Vitória is the hometown of a dear family friend, Bruno Mangueira, an amazing guitarrist who stayed in my parents house for a few months a few years ago. While Bruno lives in Brasilia, he met me in Vitória for the weekend and we both stayed in his mom's house, a mere 6 blocks from the beach! Unfortunately, for the first couple days the weather wasn't particularly cooperative for beach time. Of course, for this Ohio girl, a beach is a beach, and I was happy to just be near the water, rain or shine. Bruno's mother took me on a small tour of some of the beaches the first day, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover some quite attractive firemen doing endurance training. =) You never know what you might find on a rainy day on a Brazilian beach!

As I mentioned before, Brazilian culture means leaving to go out at 11pm or midnight, and Vitória was no exception. The most popular late night hangout in Vitória is a place called “rua da lama” or “mud street,” a few blocks of bars, night clubs, and botecos. We somehow ended up at “rua da lama” every night in Vitória, and it seemed that every night we saw the same faces. I guess the city isn't all that big.

Friday night I met up with Bruno's sister, Miriam, who is in the center of Vitória social life. She invited me first to a feria de artesanato- booths of arts and crafts from all over Brazil. Later we went to what I can best describe as a street party. From what I gathered it was someone's house in a Bohemian style neighborhood but there were probably some 100 people hanging out, drinking beer and dancing in the middle of the street. Perfect environment to meet people, and I enjoyed talking to new friends that I would of course see at rua da lama later that night and the next couple nights as well.

Bruno and his mama

Saturday afternoon I joined Bruno and his mother on a tour of the main tourist attraction in Vitória, an old convent situated on a hilltop overlooking the city. Built in the 1500s, the building was lovely but the views of the harbor even better.

The convent

That evening, Bruno, his friend and I checked out a forró dancing party at a bar on the beach. I loved the ambiance- waves crashing on the shore, people mingling under the shelter at the bar and onto the beach, live music. There were some incredible dancers there- I guess Vitória is known for its forró music and dancing. The band was fantastic as well. I was particularly fascinated by the triangle player. I know people joke about the triangle being such an easy instrument to play, but they've never seen a triangle played by a forró musician!

Sunday, the music and dance continued at the annual Vitória samba festival. I spent the day walking around, watching some fantastic samba bands, trying (not so successfully) to master the samba step, and keeping Miriam company as she sold some artesanal beers in the street. The day was super fun but exhausting, and it of course ended, where else? Rua da lama. =)

Craziness at the samba festival

Miriam and me

Artesanal beer

Interesting characters at this festival- almost like a mini carnaval!

On my last day in Vitória, the sun finally came out in full blast and I decided to spend a few hours at the beach in true vacation mode. Despite my constant reapplication of sunscreen, I have a pretty good burn today, but it was worth it. I took a late afternoon flight from Vitória through São Paulo and up to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, where I will be staying for a week. More to come on Brasilia soon! =)