When I first turned up in Greece a few months ago, I had the idea that after spending some weeks there, I would be flying back to Africa to continue the trip that Daniel and I had originally planned. But months passed in Greece and I started to get my bearings as a solo traveler when I learned that Daniel was definitely not rejoining me (he was off chasing love in Italy – but that is his story to tell some day). So I spent some time reflecting on what I would most like to do with my remaining travel months, given the new situation.

And I was surprised to find that I heard Asia calling, not Africa.

IMG_9750Sunset on Goa beach

I so enjoyed the years I spent living in Africa, and I would love to go back and see more countries at some point, but at this time, I decided that I wanted to go somewhere new.

For me, I realized that returning to Africa would be going backwards in a way, retracing steps I’ve already taken (especially because I know I wouldn’t be able to travel in Africa without making a stop in Benin to visit old friends, whom I miss dearly). I would have loved to do it, because that time in my life was so important to me and it also seemed familiar, as opposed to Asia which is completely new to me. But ultimately, I want to move forward, to experience new things, venture to the unknown instead of dwelling in what is familiar and comfortable.

And sometimes you just have to leave the past in the past.

P1010276Already five years ago


So I chose to continue east instead of going back west. And I set my sights on India.

I’ve always wanted to visit India – I was captivated by the photos and stories from this diverse country for years. It seems like a place that is very real. A place where one can see clearly what it means to be human. And, of course, Indian food is pretty incredible. I always say that at least half of the point of traveling is to eat new and delicious food in different places.

I flew from Greece to Goa, India in a 24-hour journey consisting of 4 flights (Greece –> Romania –> Dubai –> Goa). It was long, but the price was less than what you can pay to fly across the US, so it seemed worth the extra time

The plane dropped below the clouds and I saw India come into a hazy focus. Dark green forests alternating with water, and light brown dirt roads and houses of varying sizes. Pollution is bad in India and the day I flew in, it had rained and the smog seemed to be trapped beneath the clouds, so I couldn’t see the ground very clearly. When I finally stepped off the plane in Goa, I had the familiar feeling of walking into a wall of thick, humid, hot air.

Ah, back in the tropics.

I was already sweating as I carried my backpack through the airport, got my 60-day visa for India and my passport stamped, withdrew some rupees from the airport ATM, and pulled out the directions for getting to the AirBnB that I had reserved for that night.

Leaving the airport, there was a rush of taxi and rickshaw drivers trying to feast on the fresh blood of new visitors to their country. They know that foreigners exiting the airport are the most likely to drastically overpay for transportation. You’re exhausted, you have luggage, and maybe you’ve never been to the country (like me) and you don’t know how much things usually cost. Some travelers are offended that people try to take advantage of them in this way, but I don’t begrudge the drivers seizing the opportunity to make some extra money for their families. I’m sure I would do the same, were I in their position.

It was a bit overwhelming, the rush of people, the heat, humidity, and so many new things, but I had some information from my AirBnB host that helped me get the right price to her place in a trustworthy taxi. The fifteen minute ride reminded me of what it’s like to be in the developing world – old cars, bumpy and dusty roads, traffic laws that are more like guidelines, and lots of horns blaring.

Out the window, I watched as we bounced past small shops with packets of useful items hanging from corrugated metal roofs, women in brightly colored clothing, full-sized cows that were strolling along the road nonchalantly, small dirt roads that darted off from the main road, old men hanging out in front of the shops and groups of kids playing barefoot in the streets. My eyes took it all in hungrily, and I felt part of myself relax in recognition of something familiar.


I’ve missed this kind of world.

India is of course quite different from the African countries I’ve visited, but there are some similarities. And in a strange way, being here feels a bit like being home. India feels so much less different from Benin or Uganda than Morocco did, even though India is thousands of miles away and Morocco shares a continent with those countries.

My five days in Goa were spent almost exclusively at the beach. After somewhat accidentally spending the majority of winter in Europe, I was so excited for warm weather and swimming in the ocean, which was gloriously warm and so pleasant for swimming.

Since then, I’ve been to three different cities and I am quickly falling in love with India. I only planned to spend one month here when I arrived – I was hoping to also visit Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – but I have a feeling I will stay here for the full two months that my visa allows.

There is so much to explore here, I feel like I could spend years traveling India and still not experience everything.

Short post today but here are a few pictures:

IMG_0122Climbing 900 stairs to see a sunrise above the town

IMG_9921So much amazing food here

IMG_9825Mumbai has amazing architecture


Monkeys watching the sunset


Coconut water straight from the coconut:)

Sunset scene by Pushkar Lake


Lesvos in the time of refugees

In 2015, when refugees first started streaming into Greece by the thousands, boat after overcrowded boat landing on the shores of Lesvos and a few other islands, I felt the pull to go help. Agencies were calling for volunteers to help keep people safe, and I wondered whether I should go. But I didn’t feel like I could leave my work at the time, which was keeping other people safe. Still, it stayed on my heart and mind for years, as I followed the refugee crisis in the news. Finally, three years later, I found the opportunity to go do the volunteering that had been in the back of my mind since then.

img_9120Mytilene, Lesvos

I flew to Lesvos from Athens on a 50-person propeller plane and landed in Mytilene, the main city on Lesvos.

I took the only bus of the day to the community where I would be volunteering, Skala Sikamineas, a tiny village on the northeastern corner of Lesvos. It is one of the closest parts of the island to Turkey, which is why it is a hotspot for refugee arrivals. It has a lot of fishermen, one mini market, one bakery, a handful of restaurants, and one cafe where both old Greek men and young international volunteers hang out. I stumbled out of the bus and right into this café where I promptly met like-minded volunteers and got my orientation from the volunteer coordinator. My first shift was the next morning.

img_9237Skala Sikamineas – out the window of the volunteer house

I was part of the land crew for an agency called Refugee Rescue, and we had two jobs: one, to watch the sea from above and spot any refugee boats that entered Greek waters, and two, if a boat was spotted, we would open the transit camp where the refugees would stay until they could be transferred to the main refugee camp on Lesvos. We distributed blankets, hot tea, and helped everyone get dry clothes to replace anything that was wet. And we also got to distribute toys for the kids, which was so lovely! (And prior to that, the Hellenic Coast Guard and other official boats would be notified and either they or the Refugee Rescue boat would meet the refugee boat and escort the people safely to shore.)

6b54f417-cc2b-4689-b9fb-77342da607d8Looks pretty but it was FREEZING

Why is this work even necessary? International refugee policy and migration routes are ridiculously complicated and ever-changing subjects, but here’s a simplified summary. When refugees flee their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, or other countries due to unsafe conditions there, many of them aim to resettle in the European Union, where living conditions are better and their families will be safe. They make their way overland from their home nation and end up in Turkey where they try to cross by boat to land in Greece, where they seek asylum.

(The process of seeking asylum is a political request that an individual puts in, saying that the country they have left is unsafe for them, and asking for permission to resettle in a new country. It’s a time-consuming process and not all people who request asylum are granted it.)

Refugee Flow

The distance of sea between Turkey and Lesvos near Skala is fairly short (only five nautical miles), but the journey is dangerous, which is why boat spotting is important. Most refugees cross on dinghies, small boats made of rubber with an engine attached, and most crossings are at night. The dinghies that arrived on Greek shores while I was there contained 35-60 people each.

There were a surprising number of small children on the boats, including a 4-day old baby.

Dinghy(I never personally saw a dinghy in my three weeks, but this photo was taken a few years ago by Boaz Arad from IsraAid. This agency was on Lesvos doing great medical work while I was there.)

Lots of things can go wrong on a journey across the Aegean. Most dinghies take at least an hour and a half to cross, though sometimes it can be faster and sometimes it can take up to 3-4 hours. The engine can stop working on the boat, stranding the people in the middle of the sea. The weather can change, as it did one night that I was working and a boat came into Greek waters during a thunderstorm – it had been calm when they left Turkey but by the time they made it to Greece, they were totally soaked from rain and there was lightning in the sky. The boat can develop a leak and start taking on water, and eventually sink.

And, something sinister I learned while I was there is that though the smugglers who organize the boats provide life jackets (which of course the refugees pay an additional fee for, on top of the huge fees they are already paying for the service of being smuggled – sometimes people’s whole life savings), they are often fake. Fake life jackets look real, but when they get wet, the material inside absorbs water instead of repelling it, and they will end up dragging a person down instead of floating them.

So the danger of attempting a crossing is quite real.

Fake life jackets cut open to reveal the inside

The volunteer work we were doing was important, but it was not glamorous nor fast-paced.

fullsizeoutput_2610Two of my colleagues watching for boats around midnight one night

It meant a lot of nights spent standing out in the cold and wind (yes, Greece is cold in the winter time too), scanning the sea through a night vision camera or binoculars, looking for refugee boats. Most nights, nothing happened. But every night, it was possible that we would see something and so we had to be out there and alert.

img_9219An official boat patrolling the Greek-Turkey border, seen through the night vision camera

We did night shifts that went from 10pm to 7am, which were spent on an exposed promontory which had a good view of a large section of sea. Working in teams of three, we watched the sea throughout the whole night in shifts, each getting a couple of hours to sleep in the car, huddled under blankets, when it wasn’t our shift.

It was highly unpleasant on some nights, trying to keep the [very expensive] camera and your body steady in huge gusts of wind, waiting out rain for hours locked in a soggy car with two other exhausted people, etc. The sea looked pretty unfriendly in the dark, especially when there was no moon and there was wind or rain.

It gave me a lot of time to think about how desperate and scared I would have to be to decide to put myself and my children in a boat in the middle of a frigid, windy night and try to cross that scary sea.


I took this photo around 3am one night during my shift. I was sitting out at our viewing point, having my 5-minute break between scans. I was thinking about the refugees who were likely hiding in the woods somewhere in Turkey, trying to decide if tonight was the right night to attempt a crossing. I had prepared a thermos of hot tea to bring with me, something to try to keep a bit warm, and when I looked at the little saying on the tag, it just hit me straight in the heart with its relevance to what I was doing.

Indeed, we are one soul, you and me.

Myself, the refugees who are crossing, the people who live in Skala Sikamineas… we’re all the same. We’re all human. We all want the same basic things in life – safety and freedom for ourselves and our families, enough to eat, a roof over our heads, employment that pays enough to live, etc. I happen to have been born in a stable country with no war, to a privileged family, and that puts me in a position to help. These folks on the boats happen to have been born in a country that is unsafe for one reason or another (and I won’t get political, but our government had a lot to do with the reasons that some of these people are fleeing their homes) and that puts them in a position of needing help right now. We were born in different places, but we are one.

Those are my sisters and brothers. We are two sides of the same coin. We are the same.

IMG_9411Lifejacket graveyard

Shortly before I left Lesvos, a few of the other volunteers and I drove a short distance from the spot where we watch for boats to see this ‘lifejacket graveyard,’ an unintentional monument to all the refugees who have passed through Lesvos in the past few years.

The life jacket graveyard is just a pit in the ground, not far from a cute tourist town called Molyvos, where life jackets started collecting, and now there are thousands upon thousands just disintegrating in the elements. There are pieces of dinghies and different flotation devices mixed in, and a bunch of boat motors arranged near one edge like tombstones.


It was powerful to witness.

When I first got out of the car and took in the magnitude of all those people who left their homes and everything they knew to make this dangerous journey, the hairs on my arms stood straight up and I got goosebumps all over.

One of the other volunteers said, “the feeling I get here is the same feeling as when I visited Auschwitz and saw all the shoes left behind.”

The crisis continues.

The volume of refugees that cross through Lesvos these days is diminished from what it was in 2015 when the crisis began. The European Union is paying Turkey quite a bit of money to try to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece; there is a Frontex patrol boat on the border at most times, as well as a NATO warship patrolling the border, in addition to the Turkish and Greek coast guards. And yet, people continue to cross.

Once they arrive in Greece, they spend months or years trapped in Moria, the main refugee camp. It is like a prison where they must stay until they are either deported back to Turkey or allowed entry onto mainland Greece. (I didn’t visit Moria because I didn’t have any work to do there and I don’t like to treat humans like animals in a zoo to be viewed, but click here for some good photos and reporting on the camp.) Overall, the presence of a huge number of refugees on Lesvos was much less obvious than I thought it would be, because they are all contained in the camp.

But people continue to arrive. I just saw an update from friends who are still there, and they had four boats land in the last 27 hours, with nearly 130 people on board.

There are also boats landing on the Greek islands of Samos and Chios, and a growing number of refugees crossing into Italy from Africa. A huge amount are moving overland to Jordan and effectively resettling there, which is rarely mentioned in the news. And of course there are other refugees and mass migrations across the world.

Most countries don’t want to take in any more refugees, but it’s not safe for them to return to their home countries. And remaining in subhuman conditions in refugee camps is also not a viable solution.

I don’t know what the answer to this huge issue is, but I do know that this work both shook my faith in humanity and renewed it.

The coordinator for the agency I volunteered with posted a picture of a dinghy that arrived on Lesvos one morning and ended her description with the hashtag, #Godisdead.

I can understand why. Bearing witness to the suffering of so many people, the terrible things they encounter that force them to leave their homes, the arduous journey they take, the treatment they receive by some people and authorities along the way, the animal-like conditions in which they exist in Moria camp, and the likelihood that in the end they will be deported anyway…it can make you question why any God would allow this.

But on the other hand, as I got to know the community I was living in, I learned about how the residents of this tiny village reacted when refugees suddenly started showing up on their shores in droves. And that buoyed my spirits and my hope for humanity.

The few hundred people who live in this village were there when the refugees first started arriving, and they rose up to help their fellow humans, doing their best until the international NGOs and other assistance arrived months later. The women cooked and helped care for the children, the local café donated food and drinks, and the fishermen were nominated for a Nobel prize for their work rescuing people from boats in distress. (Here is a beautiful photo collage by the Guardian showing the incredible work of this community.)

It’s so beautiful to know that despite what we see reflected in politics, the basic human impulse is still to help others.

And that is what I’m going to try to keep in my heart from this experience.