Social Media

Monday, August 25, 2014

Flying Solo

Recently one of my previous Broadreach students reminded me of something that I told     her a little over a year ago. She is off to explore Europe on her own for the next month and a half and has started up a blog to cover her solo adventures ( After reading about her trip, I was so excited for her and had to comment. 

I honestly had forgotten all about that conversation that I had with Grace and her friend, Analee, all those months ago, but as soon as she mentioned it the memories came flying back to me. I had been in Thailand for 10 days on my own scouting out future Broadreach programs and getting ready for my program. I spent time in Chiang Mai and Pai looking for sustainable organic farms and cultural experiences for future trips to participate in. I rode a mo-ped all over those two cities, sampled elephant riding, Thai cooking classes, bamboo rafting, hiking, tribal villages, permaculture centers, stayed on Khao San road in Bangkok, and visited the many majestic temples of Ayutthaya; I had been on planes, trains, and automobiles criss-crossing Northern and Central Thailand. To say the very least, I was on a travel high, and nearly breathless with the whirlwind of all those experiences in such quick succession. I gushed about about the benefits of traveling alone: meeting new people, taking risks, being more open, only worrying about yourself. I am beyond proud of Grace for taking the plunge and leaping out into the world alone. I decided it was time to share this insight with a wider audience. Get out there and travel alone!  

Growing up, my family and I did A LOT of Florida. And, I really mean a lot. It was great to get out of town and enjoy the warm contrast to New York winters, but Florida did not feel exotic or exciting. I had been to the same places in Florida so many times, it felt like being at home, just warm. When my father remarried, he went to Belize for his honey moon with his new wife. The stories and pictures that they returned with blew my mind. Throw in some Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen travel movies and I was convinced it was beyond necessary to get out of the U.S. and see the world. 

In High School, I was desperate to go with my French class on the annual trip to France, but as fate would have it, September 11th brought the cancelation of all international school trips the year it was finally my turn to go. My next chance was Mexico, well kind of - it was Can Cun, for my senior trip. An impressively large group from my graduating class traveled together to Can Cun for gradweek 2003: 7 days of binge drinking and debauchery. This trip should in no way qualify as international travel. But, in my string of irresponsible choices, I hopped off a stage to the dance floor below while barefoot and sliced my foot open on a piece of broken glass. In order to deter infection, a friend and I ventured off the strip on a public bus into Mexico, to a Wal-Mart of all places, for some first aid supplies. The experience was eye-opening - Mexico was a lot more than clubs and all inclusive resorts. Traveling abroad meant a lot more than white sand beaches, aqua waters, and frozen drinks. I wanted to see more, to know more, to really understand how different life was in other places. 

When I started University, I knew very little about what the next 4 years had in store for me, but I knew I would be studying abroad. The summer following my freshman year was filled with University Physics 1 & 2 so I would not fall behind on my core classes while I spent a semester in Australia Sophomore year. I convinced my best friend to sign up with me, and we were on a airplane to Brisbane in January 2005. I was so lucky to have Bridget as a traveling companion. She is patient, and fun, and up for anything. Having a friend gave me someone to live with, someone to commute with, someone to go to the beach with, someone to study with, and someone to party with. It was excellent, and except for the normal girlfriend drama when you are 19, it was pretty easy. My travel bug bite flared up again during my senior year, and Bridget and I signed up for a January intersession course in mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. This trip involved a group of about 20 students from our University, and Bridge and I did make some new friends, but  again I always had a roommate, someone to sit next to on the bus, someone to take photographs with, someone to put sunscreen on my back when I decided to wear it. 

After graduating, I decided I knew what I wanted out of a trip and I was ready to plan a trip alone (well, mostly). I arranged to volunteer at a marine science center in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa for 6 weeks, and I would spend 6 more weeks backpacking the coast from Plett to Jo'burg afterwards. On the way home, I would meet Bridget in London and we would have 10 days to spend in London, Paris, and Amsterdam together. When I got off the plane in Cape Town and made my way to my first backpackers' hostel, it sunk in that I would not have a roommate, nor would I have someone to cook dinner with. The following days would include sightseeing on my own. I may have panicked a little and I definitely felt pretty alone that first night. The next morning at breakfast, I met the hostel owner's daughter. She was a university student in Florida and was visiting her mother with her American boyfriend for the January break. She was very outgoing and invited me to spend the day hiking with her and her boyfriend. I jumped at the chance and got to visit local hiking spots that were not congested with tourists. Would I have done that if I was with my best friend from home? Instincts say no.

Throughout my time in South Africa, I continued to have experiences like this. South Africa is extremely amenable to backpackers and one of the best amenities is the Baz Bus. This bus provides a hop on, hop off service, from door to door of backpacker establishments along the coast and inland. One buys a pass for a period of time, rather than a particular route or distance, and you can travel as much and as far as you wish during that time. On my first Baz Bus ride, a talkative, friendly guy with lots of dreadlocks sat down next to me. He was a South African that worked at a backpackers North from where we were and he was meeting some friends further south. He spent the whole ride telling me all about places I needed to see and insisted that I visit the place where he worked when I passed through. A couple weeks later, I found myself at Tube n' Axe hanging out with my friend from the bus and his friends. I spent 5 days there, jumped the worlds highest commercial bungee jump, went on several jungle hikes, hiked the coast, cliff jumped into the Storms river, and spent evenings drinking with locals in the bar. Another time, I was in a town called Wilderness and met another single female traveler named Maile. We walked along some abandoned railroad tracks on the coast together, enjoyed the views, conversation, and meeting artistic and creepy squatters in an abandoned restaurant built inside a huge cave. Later in my trip, I was walking along the side of a road and Maile drove by, honked her horn and told me to jump in. We had a long lunch together and she did a tarot card reading for me. Years later, I have visited her in California twice and will hopefully be visiting her in Hawaii in the near future. 

The moral of the story is that when you have your bestie, or a family member, or a school group, you have a safety net. You have people who have little choice whether or not they talk to you or spend time with you and vice versa. When you make plans or change plans, you must consult with your tripmates and come to a consensus. Traveling alone gives you the freedom to talk to whoever happens to sit down next to you and to change your plans on a whim. If a person on the bus suggests that you get off at the next stop because he heard a rumor that there is a great waterfall - you are free to jump right off. In addition to the freedom to be spontaneous, you are also free from judgement. You are not traveling with any figurative baggage from home - you do whatever you want and only those you tell will know about it. You do not need to worry if your tripmates are having fun, if they think the trip is as meaningful as you do, if they are secretly counting the hours until they are on a flight home. Traveling alone may me the a selfish choice to make, but I swear it is the best choice you can make. Traveling alone allows you to have the lofty experiences you dream about when you decide you want to travel. 

I realize that for many safety seems like it would be an issue. I promise you, travelers look out for travelers. Foreign countries are not more dangerous than your own, they are just foreign. As humans we have a tendency to fear what is not familiar. But really, when has something been fun and not been at least a little scary in some way? Safety is absolutely not a worthy excuse. Go ahead, fly solo. You will not regret it. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


I finally watched Jaws for the first time this summer. When I was a child, my mother told me that her brother has not swam in the ocean since first seeing the movie some 30 years ago. As an ocean loving beach bum of a child, I knew that I never wanted to feel frightened of the ocean, so I chose not to watch Jaws while growing up. As an adult, I recognized that the movie fueled much of the terror and hate expressed towards sharks, and chose not to watch the film out of principle. As I was preparing to spend my summer diving with sharks and teaching a group of college students about shark behavior and conservation, I decided it was finally time to see this legendary movie. The conclusion? I really enjoyed the film. I thought it was impressively well made for a film of its age. I enjoyed the parody of the summer town that puts tourism money above people's lives, as I can easily relate this mentality to the Hamptons of New York. I also enjoyed the marine biologist from "the institute" as he embodied so many marine biology stereotypes and it is good to be able to laugh at yourself. In the real world, it seems that it is obvious that a shark will not maliciously target a boat as it did in the movie and the film did not leave me too scared to swim. In the end, I enjoyed the cinematic experience and was left wondering how this film spurred decades of "monster" hunting and relentless shark killing.

I think that people's response to the movie had more to do with marketing than with the actual movie. The film gave fishermen and tour operators excellent material to drum up fears and encourage people to spend their money on tournaments and hunting expeditions. It also provided fodder to fuel natural fears and instill a hatred in humans that would prevent them from speaking out and putting a stop to the barbaric killing. Essentially, I do not blame Jaws for the mindless slaughter of 100's of millions of sharks. I blame people: the people that have done the killing and the people who have encouraged it or have just turned the other way. I think Jaws is an easy target to help us understand why people have been so shortsighted and cruel in their treatment of sharks, but really it is just human nature, and ignorance, to be blamed.

So now it is time for another round of Shark Week. The time of year where millions of Americans cozy up on their couches, with the air conditioning blasting, and chug a beer every time someones says "air jaws." Meanwhile, 5,709 sharks are murdered during each 30 minute segment ( Every year I try to watch a couple episodes of Shark Week and each time I am disappointed and disgusted. I appreciate that they now include token conservation episodes and will mention conservation statistics, but the overarching mood of the week is fear for fun, with the fitting verbiage and spine tingling suspense music. While sharks are not cuddly kittens, they can and will hurt you if provoked, they do not warrant mindless terror. Sharks need to be respected, but should not be described as toothy killing machines for the purpose of fear mongering. Sharks need to be understood as a natural part of the ocean ecosystem, keeping prey populations in check, just as lions do in African grasslands. Or for an example closer to home, just as wolves and big cats once kept deer populations under control in the North Eastern United States. Has anyone else hit a deer with their vehicle? I have, and it sucks. But rather than cursing the less than genius herbivore, I cursed the humans that systematically removed all their predators. Humans are notoriously bad at learning from their mistakes. What unexpected impacts will the loss of ocean predators have? Let's just say, I hope you like jellyfish (

Photo: Hannah Cohen, Broadreach Student 2014
This summer, I can't help but be extra jazzed about the Shark Week phenomenon. I have just returned home from an unforgettable, sharky summer in Fiji teaching some of the brightest, most inspirational students I have met. The course included daily lectures about shark behavior and conservation taught by me, but the real teachers this summer were the sharks themselves. We spent 8 days (spread out over 3 weeks) going on shark dives with Beqa Adventure Divers ( getting to know the majestic bull sharks of Beqa Lagoon. Each day with BAD included two dives. The first sent us down to 100' to observe up to 70 bull sharks feeding on tuna heads reclaimed from the local fish market. After reaching the No Decompression Limit (NDL) of about 15 minutes, 15 more minutes
were spent watching Grey Reef Sharks at 30' feeding on tuna scraps, and then finally ten minutes at 15 feet watching white and black tip reef sharks also feeding on scraps. After a one hour surface interval, it was back down to 60 feet for 30 minutes of bull sharks feeding on tuna heads falling from suspended bins and being hand fed. While watching these feedings, we got to know individual sharks by their markings and behaviors. We recognized patterns and became aware of behaviors to look out for. Getting to spend so much time with these sharks really allowed the students and I to feel as though we had gotten to know these very special sharks. Sometimes the encounters were infused with adrenaline as the sharks became frenzied over the tuna heads, but in general, the whole experience was surprisingly peaceful. The sharks move in such a graceful and rhythmic manner, it is practically hypnotic. One might think that it is impossible to take your eyes off the sharks for fear that they will attack if you look away, but really you can't stop looking at them because they are so beautiful.

White Shark, South Africa
I have always been a shark lover. I think a big part of my love for sharks comes from a natural tendency to vote for the underdog. If everyone else is going to be fearful and hateful towards sharks, it is in my nature to embrace them. I have been on other shark dives (in Honduras), I have encountered sharks naturally (Bahamas), and I have even witnessed Great Whites from a cage in South Africa. Every time
I have an experience like this, my vote of confidence in sharks is reinforced. I know that not everyone has the time or interest to travel and dive with sharks, but I really believe that if more people had the opportunity to see sharks in this way rather than in the sensationalized yellow journalism on Discovery, there would be more outcry against the senseless slaughter of sharks in the global ocean. In recent years, voices have been getting louder and stronger in the defense of sharks, but there is still so much unnecessary killing bloodying the high seas.

As this year's Shark Week goes on, enjoy the entertainment of it. But remember that the goal of Shark Week is entertainment, just as was the goal of the legendary Jaws. Try to keep emotions in check and do not succumb to the fear factor. If you need help, just remember that more people die each year from shaking a vending machine so violently that it tips over and crushes them, than die from shark attacks. If this doesn't make you laugh and help keep things in perspective, I don't know what will.