travel

We are all connected in some way

The rise of the global citizen...

The rise of the global citizen...

 

"Things happen for a reason. You are sure of it. You are sure of it because in your soul you know that we are all connected." - Connectedness from StrengthsFinder

 

Fairly (eerily) accurate depiction of one of Top 5 strengths per StrengthsFinder 2.0. Whether it's introducing two strangers who may become a perfect match or blending several random points to make one, I see myself constantly and subconsciously trying to connect the dots between ideas and people. 

And if I were to dig deeper...it's probably a reason why I love traveling to foreign places...because I somehow believe we're all connected in some way. And why I've always had an unquenchable thirst for language learning...it's because I want to get closer and "connected" with people around the world. And I guess it explains a plethora of other hobbies ranging from reading to volunteering to meeting new people...I've always felt connected to people in some way or another.

Gallup says I'm a "bridge builder for people of different cultures," and I very much like that title. Bridge builder. Maybe next time someone asks me, "So...what do you do?"

"I'm a bridge builder for people of different cultures."

Preventing Human Elephant Conflict

Update (11/11/17)

It's been over 2 years since I first came into contact with human-elephant conflict in Zambia...and watching Netflix's The Ivory Game (Leonardo DiCaprio) last night just brought back me. And it's great to see the progress that's been made...with China announcing it will shut down its ivory market by the end of 2017.

It felt like yesterday when Sandy saved me from walking into a herd of elephants at night, and that was the start of my appreciation and love for elephants. While I grew up 3 blocks from the San Francisco zoo, it's something else when you see these gigantic mammals roaming in the wild. The last of the dinosaurs. 

And it really is sad to hear that there are only around 350,000 elephants left in Africa (compared with 10 million in 1900) with an annual decline of 27,000...which means that the extinction of the elephant may be possible during our lifetimes.

What many don't know is that human-elephant conflict in villages catalyzes poaching. As long as villagers continue growing up thinking elephants are the enemy, poaching is going to be accepted. There was a scene in the documentary where elephants were raiding a village (for food) at night, and the ravenous, weapon-wielding villagers gathered shouting:

"Today, this elephant, we will kill!"

Luckily, these animals were saved by the crew. The most viable solution right now is electric fences, but that is extremely costly. It will continue to be a long fight to come...but a much needed one. 


(May 2015)

Issue: 

In Africa, human populations are growing faster than elephant populations, leading to degradation of elephant habitats and increased conflict between elephants and small scale farmers. Elephants are being squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats, while farmers continue to plant crops that elephants like to eat. As a result, elephants have raided and destroyed 100% of the harvests for many subsistence farmers while contributing to increased violence between humans and elephants.

 

Why it matters?

Solving the issue between human elephant conflict can contribute to a resurgence of the African economy by increasing value in agricultural crop yields, while mitigating potential violent encounters between humans and elephants. And because elephants are vital to the ecological landscape, a solution can also yield environmental and wildlife benefits.

 

Background 

Sandy Simpson's electric fences have improved the lives of thousands of Zambians by eliminating conflict between humans and elephants.

When Sandy Simpson read a National Geographic article in the early 2000s that stated the animal population had been decimated by 90% in the past century, he packed his bags, sold his business in Europe, and moved back to his hometown in Kenya to work in animal conservation. 

For the last 2 years, he’s been working to solve the human elephant conflict in Zambia with his NGO, Green Rural African Development (GRAD). If you zoom into where rural African villages are located on Google Earth, you will find that many villages are located on or near the premises of a national park or in other words, humans and animals cohabit. This has resulted in years and years of conflict between humans and elephants, a problem that remains unresolved.

Zambian Wildlife Authority’s (ZAWA) response to this problem? Issue fireworks to local farmers to scare away the elephants. However, this created another set of problems – fireworks were dangerous and only a temporary fix. Thus, Mr. Simpson thought the best solution was prevention. His first project involved a local farmer, Robby, whose farm had been devastated by elephants for the past 10 years, leading to starvation and his family’s departure from farming in Livingstone, leaving him to solely end to the farm. Mr. Simpson started with simple string and reflective tape surrounding Robby’s farm, which provided instant results – elephants saw the reflective tape and string at night and immediately turned back. This is Robby’s story…


Robby’s Story          

Robby (left) and his uncle in front of their new banana tree

Robby’s family started a career in farming 30 years ago in Maloni Village, a community of 6,000 people within Livingstone. The first 10 years proved to be successful with limited conflict between humans and animals – the harvests were successful. Then, the elephants started coming. And for the next 20 years, they raided and destroyed the village crops every night. The maize. The okra. The tomatoes. Everything was gone even before the harvesting season began, forcing farmers to harvest long before crops were ripe for picking.

As a result, Robby’s family and most farmers in Maloni Village, never had a successful harvest in the past 20 years. And because most of these farmers are subsistence farmers, lack of crops also meant starvation at times. Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) could only do so much as to provide fireworks to scare off the elephants. However, according to Robby, fireworks never solved the problem and only scared off the elephants temporarily. In fact, fireworks were extremely dangerous. Robby’s brother attempt to scare off the elephants one night with fireworks was disastrous – the fireworks blew up in his hand and caused serious injury. In addition, elephants entering human settlement has also caused for serious danger stemming from human elephant conflict. While elephants are peaceful animals at heart, when taunted to an extent, they can become violent and have caused serious injuries and even human deaths.

 This forced Robby’s family to abandon the farming business 7 years ago to find greener pastures elsewhere, leaving Robby to independently take over the farm. He continued to struggle until 2014, when Green Rural African Development (GRAD) Founder, Sandy Simpson, decided the best solution was the prevention of human elephant encounters. Mr. Simpson decided to fence off Robby’s farm with string and lights, which produced immediate results as elephants saw the tape at night as a warning sign. While effective, there was still a big problem – villagers continued to steal the lights. Thus, Mr. Simpson decided it was most effective to install an electric fence system around Maloni Village to block out the elephants. The results were effective and incredible. Elephants would come at night but stop at the sight of the reflector tape and electric fence. So far in 2015, there have been no human elephant encounters in Maloni Village.

 With the elephants gone, Robby’s family decided to move back into the farm. And with newfound confidence, they decided to expand the farm to include a chicken house, pig house, and new varieties of crops. Previously, they had only focused on maize, acra, and tomato. However, they have now expanded to include eggplants, bananas, guavas, and sunflower to name a few. Robbie says the market demand is there but the supply is not, so they even have plans to acquire new farmland to meet the demand. In addition to feeding their family, they are now selling their crops in the village market and town, generating revenues of over $150 per month (vs. $0 same period last year). With newfound confidence now that their crops are safe from elephants, they have a target of $550 per month by year-end.

 

Why Is It Important?

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Mr. Simpson’s work in human elephant conflict has directly and indirectly helped and benefitted thousands of people in Livingstone. Subsistence farmers are now not only able to feed and support their families but create a living off selling their crops, resulting in a boost to the local economy.  

Who else benefits? Large supermarkets no longer have to import vegetables and fruits from hundreds of miles away, potentially saving them thousands of dollars in transportation costs – they can now buy directly from the local farmers for a cheaper price in addition to fresher produce. Buying locally also mitigates the risk of potential losses or lag time from transportation. Locals and tourists also benefit – supermarkets may pass on the savings in lower produce costs and fresher produce. Finally, a reduction in human elephant conflict means less potential violence, which may lead to a revival of the elephant population stemming from a better relationship amongst humans and elephants.

 

What are the Challenges?

Mr. Simpson is currently a one-man team with the help of several volunteers. While human elephant conflict is a major problem in Africa, efforts to resolve the problem are minimal; Mr. Simpson is currently the only known person in Africa fully dedicated at resolving the problem.

“It’s a very simple solution, anyone can do this. But we need money and support.” 

Mr. Simpson has been currently funding the project with his personal savings, having spent over an estimated $250,000 in personal savings in the past several years. What are the costs? It takes an estimated $1,000 per kilometer of electric fence. Take into account the thousands of kilometers surrounding conflict farms, and you will get an amount surpassing the millions.

 

Final Thoughts

The problem between humans and elephants in Africa is clear and a big one. However, it is a big problem with a simple solution. While educating the public about the importance of ecological sustainability is a much bigger issue, a practical and implementable solution right now is prevention as there is no barrier separating elephants and farms. One risk is the possibility of snaring, but it is trivial in the overarching problem between humans and elephants. Furthermore, electric fence voltage is only high enough to shock the elephants from entering and is not lethal; elephants are also trained to steer away from fences.

Solutions in Africa have to be simple. Mr. Simpson has proved this to be true and has effectively improved the lives of thousands of people in Zambia. He has plans to develop additional preventative measures, such as buzzing infrasound devices on the fences (elephants hate bees). But he needs money and more importantly, support. This is a problem that affects thousands of farmers directly and millions of people indirectly. The perfect solution may not exist but the best solution at the moment is prevention.

If you would like to find out more about Mr. Simpson and GRAD’s efforts, please visit www.gradinternational.org

Time and Regret...Lessons from Mr. Roper

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"Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed by...Don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

I was shocked. Mr. Roper, who had been cracking jokes in the barbershop for the past hour, suddenly just broke down in front of me. I'll never forget those sorrowful eyes staring straight into mine...tears of regret.

I was staying in an Airbnb in Queens (NYC), which was conveniently located next to a barbershop and where some of the Airbnb guests hung out at night. What a magical place. You could smell the history of Queens and NYC envelop you the moment you walked. A flashback in time from the antiquated black-and-white photos to the chairs that stood the test of time. Mr. Roper was a storyteller who captivated us with his life stories in the 1960s...from the social movements that brewed to the crack era...it was the type of stories one could only imagine, especially being seated in a 100-year old family-run barbershop.

....but then it turned somber. Mr. Roper suddenly grabbed me by the arm and looked me in the eye with the most remorseful look...

 

"Time, man! Time just passes! Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed. Look at ya'll. Still so young...but this is what you should be doing! Traveling...don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

Dead silence. While many of his stories were jovial in nature, Mr. Roper did express many regrets (that I won't go into). We continued listening, comforting, and thanking him for his hospitality and when the night was over, Mr. Roper gave me a firm good-bye handshake...

 

"I'm so glad ya'll came. Don't you ever forget about the time."

 

And that was good-bye. But it's a lesson and a stare I'll never forget. Thanks for the lesson, Mr. Roper...I won't forget about the time.

30 Days in Vietnam

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Vietnam

It's been a while but thought I'd scrap together some mental notes of the 30-day adventure that took me from southern to northern Vietnam.

My original dreams of doing a motorcycle trip from one tip of the country to the other dissipated the moment I arrived in Saigon. I had my fair share of experiences on a bike with the occasional bruise here and there, but I was caught off guard by the sheer number of bikes on the road. Or...what I tell people is that I didn't have the time. Excuses.

Looking back, Vietnam is one of my favorite countries in the world due to its world-class street cuisine combined with its rich culture and eclectic mix of things to do from eating to caving to eating some more. Not to mention you could get all that on $10/day...let's relive some memories and start from the South!

 

SAIGON

Call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh but one thing is for sure, there is no shortage of people, bikes, and good food. Besides getting a bad haircut for $5, Saigon was everything I could ask for. My friend, Johnson, was studying Vietnamese in Saigon, so I mostly hung out with him and some new local friends. We just ate and ate and ate. It just so happened these new friends were tour guides for Saigon Hotpot, a group of young people who give local tours in exchange for English practice (this is huge in Vietnam!). Another afternoon was spent tunneling the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, a vast network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong.

And because my full-scale motorbike tour was no longer viable, I decided to take the next best option...Vietnamese sleeper buses. On to...Da Lat!

DA LAT

$3/night dorm room with a free breakfast and Vietnamese coffee...one of the highlights of my life! Da Lat is probably one of the most affordable places I've been to and the best part? It's beautiful! A whole week in Saigon for the average introvert can be draining, and my first experience with the Vietnamese sleeper bus was the first of many horror rides. But the mountain city of Da Lat was the perfect getaway.

Again, thanks to my new friends in Saigon, I was introduced to a few other friends in Da Lat. We met for dinner the first night for some local cuisine and traversed the city streets, as there was a huge parade with lion dancing and music to commemorate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The following morning, I rented a motorbike and explored the countryside for the day, stopping here and there to traverse a waterfall or two and appreciating the local culture. There's no freer feeling than riding through green pastures with the wind gliding past your face with absolutely no obligations at all but to explore.

 

HOI AN

Probably my favorite and the most scenic city in all of Vietnam (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). There's nothing like waking up for sunrise and exploring silence of Old Town before the city awakes. A visit to the famous Central Market right after is a good idea to see the locals at work, buying and selling anything and everything from seafood to greens. 

Old Town is photography heaven. It's also a different view at day and night. And heaven isn't complete without banh mi. Anthony Bourdain once declared Banh Mi Phuong's banh mi as the "best Vietnamese sandwich in the world." Needless to say, I came back 3 more times.

I ended up spending a few extra days in Hoi An biking and exploring nearby villages and spending a beach day because I loved it so much. Many people do as well, and I can't wait to get back. 

 

PHONG NHA

Adventure. Caving. Karst mountains. Wait, no one told me ever about this part of Vietnam. If there were a hidden secret, this is it. As of now? Just backpackers and caving enthusiasts huddle together on a one-block street of empty guest houses that's referred to as "town."

However, empty as it may seem, Phong Nha has one of the biggest caving systems in the world - ripe for adventure. Not only will you witness some of the most spectacular caves in the world, but it's an adventure seeker's paradise. Highlight of the trip was the Dark Cave, which combines ziplining, kayaking, swimming (in the darkness!), and caving until you reach the mud pits. Probably one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done. Not a fan of caves? Explore the park by motorbike...it'll just be you and the karst landscapes.

 

NINH BINH

Another hidden gem filled with some of the most impressive landscapes Southeast Asia has to offer. Getting to my guest house was an adventure through multiple rice fields but well worth it to arrive to a breathtaking "hostel" nestled between several rice fields and karst mountains.

Ninh Binh is known for its karst scenery, and everyone usually comes here to explore and explore Trang An on a boat. Beautiful place but it was also where I experienced the best of human kind...the type of experience that just awes you. While biking throughout the rice fields, I was caught in a thunder storm with nothing but my sun hat for protection. Shivering and huddled against a tree, a local couple kindly invited me in for shelter. They ended up feeding me and conversed with me through universal hand gestures. These were moments of kindness (one of many) that I experienced on the road and have touched me immensely.

 

CAT BA ISLAND

Forget Ha Long Bay...go to Cat Ba! Scenery wise, it's all the same. People and price wise? That's where you will win!

Countless travelers told us to skip Ha Long Bay (tourist trap) and head to Cat Ba. It was the right choice. And for $5 a night, we got a million dollar roof-top view that matches those on Ha Long Bay. A few of us who had met from Phong Nha decided to go motorbiking the next day and a boat cruise the following. Cat Ba island...what steal...we probably ended up spending 1/10th the cost of a traditional Ha Long Bay experience and received what we wanted in return...freedom, flexibility, and less people. 

 

HANOI

If Saigon was crazy packed, Hanoi seemed double that. Tired and weary, I was picked up by my Couchsurfing host as soon I got off the bus and taken to my new home to rest. My host owned an English language learning center, and I taught for the next few days. It was invigorating to work with students again, who were also my tour guides and food buddies. 

Hanoi as a city itself seems much more traditional and conservative compared to Saigon. If I were to use China as a comparison, I'd compare Hanoi to Beijing and Saigon to Shanghai. The dialect was a bit different and so was the food. Luckily, there is no shortage of good food anywhere in Vietnam.

 

SA PA

The last stop!

Trekking through rice paddies? Learning about Vietnam's ethnic minority groups? Yes and yes! I didn't want to stay in touristy Sa Pa, so I trekked a few miles towards Tavan village, where I found a homestay overlooking a valley of rice paddies. Throwing down my backpack, I plopped myself down on a chair at with a view, ordered a nice, cold Saigon beer, and equipped myself with some mosquito repellent to relax...life is good.

Trekking the next day brought me through Tavan's Hmong villages, where I bumped into quite a few locals and their water buffalo friends. My trail runners failed me here as I got stuck in quite a few muddy patches of the trail. But if there is such a thing as a cultural-adventurous hike, this would be it. 

 

REFLections

While I didn't get to do my motorcycle tour (yet), 30 days in Vietnam were a godsend. Vietnam is not only a culturally rich and gastronomical food hub, but it's also a country that has room for both adventure-seekers and urban coffee snobs alike. It still ceases to amaze me how much you can see and do in a country smaller than the size of California. At the same time, I've been humbled by meeting and hearing the stories of so many new friends. I'm yearning a banh mi at this very moment, and I just can't wait to get back.