Sunday, May 12, 2013

I had a dream.

I got on the plane a few days ago in Philadelphia with high expectations.  It was the beginning of making my dream come true.

I dream that instead of sitting at a desk in a suburban office complex I write.  I write a memoir, a heart warming, amusing and insightful memoir and I write it from my new home somewhere far away from suburbia, maybe Rome, possibly Bangkok, or even Shanghai.

But no, this time I wasn’t getting on a plane having sold all my possessions, ready to settle in a foreign city and write that book.  I was simply spending the week in Italy, sightseeing and writing with a handful other people who were there to do the same things.  Every dream has to start somewhere and this was mine.

I realize now that’s an awful lot to expect from a short week in a villa in Umbria.  

Like the good student I’ve always been, I’d read all the homework we’d been assigned and submitted a sample of my writing to the teacher as we’d been instructed.  I’d stuck to the plan and followed instructions.  That approach had always been successful for me in the past.  While I’m not naive enough to think I’d come back from this trip with a memoir saved to my computer desktop, it never occurred to me that this trip wasn’t the first step to making it happen.

I arrived in Umbria after a long but straightforward trip from home.  Flight from Philadelphia to Rome, train from Fiumicino to Roma Termini, a few hours for a cappuccino and panino, then another train ride to Terontola-Cortona.  And it was there, on the sidewalk outside the tiny stazione in the hills of central Italy that I met the others I’d spend the week with.

I was completely inspired from the start.  How could I not be?  I was in Italy, with a group of other aspiring writers, writing!  It was only a matter of time before that book practically wrote itself and before I was the proud owner of a flat in Rome, or a villa in Luang Prabang. This was the start.

Yesterday we went to Montone, in Tuscany.  A tiny walled village on a hilltop, like something out of a storybook.  Sweeping views of vineyards and olive orchards.  A piazza with a little cafe and a bell tower.  A church with cloistered nuns.  We had a delicious Italian lunch with expats from New York.  A little more than 10 years ago Jeff and his wife Judith gave up their fashion business in Manhattan, bought a restored 12th century townhouse and began their life in Tuscany.  They learned Italian.  They started a business.  They got involved in the local festivals and theater. They were Americans in Tuscany, living their dream.  Living my dream. 

But when I sat down with the writing group after lunch to have our class and work on our writing, with all the day’s experiences swirling around in my head, I began to think: Was I really ever going to sell everything and move somewhere far across the planet?  Could I really start completely over, make friends, learn a language, understand a new culture?  

To live like Jeff and Judith I was going to need a hell of a lot more money than I had, and probably even more importantly I was going to need a lot more courage.  And to write the book I thought I had in me?  After just a few days in the company of the other writers, I began to see that I was going to need a lot more skill and determination.  

Back in Philadelphia my dream seemed simple and easy to attain. Now here in Italy I saw that it was going to be anything but simple and easy.  As I sat there thinking instead of writing, I thought how maybe the trip was already a success because I better understood what it was going to take to make my dream come true, but tears fell as it seemed even further away here in Italy than it had been back at home.

Friday, March 29, 2013

On writing.

I’m a doctor in my daily life.  Not a real one anymore, or not what you think of when you think of what the average doctor does, anyway.  I sit behind a desk, working in an office for a pharmaceutical company.  I do a lot of stuff that really isn’t all that interesting unless you do what I do.  But it’s a great job and although it isn’t what I thought I would end up doing went I went to medical school, it’s turned out to be the perfect job for me.

I was a biology major and chemistry minor in college and even though I went to a small liberal arts school with quite a few academic requirements to substantiate that Bachelor of Arts degree I earned, I am hard pressed to think of a single English class I took or paper I wrote.  Other than lab reports for the many science courses I took, I don’t think I wrote a damn word in 4 years of college. 

That can’t really be the case, can it?  I took philosophy and French and what they called Freshman Colloquy at the time, a seminar type thing about social justice.  I took a class called Nuclear Arms for crying out loud (which is a funny, funny story for another time), we must have had to write a paper. I must have written something.  But if I did, I have really no recollection.

At some point over the years I started a journal. I wrote about what I did that day, what I wanted to do in the future, or what I’d done on the rare day I didn’t write.  It became a real outlet for me.  When I was having a hard time, I wrote about it.  When something great happened, I wrote about that too.  I’ve been doing it now for something like 15 years.  But I never really thought of it as writing.

In the meantime, as an avid reader always looking for something to read, I discovered memoirs.  I read everybody’s account of everything.  I read all of them.  From those about single women and dating, to stories of mental illness and addiction to travel memoirs, you name it, I’ve read it.  And like an awful lot of the people reading them I thought, Hey I could do this!  I have stories to tell!  But I’m no idiot, I realize it's not quite that easy.

A couple years ago just looking for something to do other than work and the unfortunate eating and drinking hobby I’d picked up, I stumbled across an adult education writing workshop at a university in the city.  And I thought Huh, maybe I should see if I could learn to write?  So I did.  And I fell madly love with the whole thing.  It was like I discovered a part of my life I never knew I was missing.  I realized pretty quickly that  I didn’t know how to write and I definitely didn’t know how to talk about writing.  But that didn’t matter.  I loved it all anyway.  My class was full of doctors and lawyers and engineers and social workers and movie theater ticket takers, all of whom also wanted to write.  And some could, some really could.  I loved that some wrote fiction, some were playwrights, some wrote memoir.  Their day jobs, like mine, generally had nothing to do with writing, or anything creative at all.  But in their free time they wrote. 

And one of the best things about class had nothing to do with class itself.  My teacher hosted a pot luck dinner at his home every other week and invited all his students, as well as people he knew from the plays he produced and the books he wrote.  He invited his friends from his artsy neighborhood in the city.  It was an open invitation to basically anyone and everyone he knew.  And most of them showed up.  And little old me who didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body fell even more in love with the whole thing.  I felt like I found my people.  I talked with people who actually made a living writing, or acting, or painting.  And I talked with plenty of people who would never make ends meet that way, but still did it anyway.  It was eye opening.  And it was standing in my teacher’s rowhouse kitchen when I realized, even if I could never do anything with it, I needed to keep writing.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

30 Things to See and Do Before I Die.

I have been thinking about my bucket list.  It seems you're not officially a blogger unless you've posted one!  So I've been thinking about mine.  I've kept one that's broader than just travel for a little while, but let's keep the one here focused on just that.

There are just so many places to go and things to see and do I'm beginning to think that if I don't start getting organized about it, I will never get to the places I really want to go.  I've been keeping a list for a long time, but haven't really been systematically trying to tackle it.  I think it's time to change my approach. 

In no particular order, my travel bucket list:

1.  Visit Red Square, Moscow Russia
2.  Go to Jordan, swim in the Dead Sea and see Petra
3.  Swim around the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
4.  See the Pyramids in Egypt
5.  Stay in a ryokan in Japan
6.  Have a drink at the bar at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo (a la Lost in Translation)
7.  Go trekking in Nepal
8.  Visit Patagonia
9.  See the Taj Mahal, India
10. Spend at least 6 months on a round the world trip
11. Work abroad for at least a year
12. Charter a sailboat around the Greek islands
13. Stay in an Aman Resorts Hotel
14. Stay at the Playa Vik hotel in Jose Ignasio, Uruguay
15. Stay at the Ritz Paris 
16. Visit the Maldives or the Seychelles
17. Drink champagne in the Champagne region of France
18. Eat dinner at the French Laundry Yountville California, USA
19. See Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe
20. Ski in Chile
21. Attend the Kentucky Derby
22. See Iguazu Falls in Brazil and Argentina
23. Visit Machu Picchu, Peru
24. Relax in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland
25. Go on a wine tasting tour of South Africa
26. Climb Mt Kilimanjaro
27. Tour Sri Lanka
28. Climb up to the Tigers Nest in Bhutan
29. Party on the beach in Ibiza
30. Ride the Trans Siberian Railroad

I have been quite a few places already that are bucket list-worthy (Angkor Wat, for one) and didn't even add to this list the things I plan to tackle this year (Dubrovnick, Burma).  And still, it seems impossible that I will ever complete this list.  I am certain to add things on faster than I can cross them off. 

But let's take one last look, what am I missing??

Monday, March 18, 2013

Musical Travel Memories.

I was listening to some music on random shuffle on my most recent plane trip and Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” came on and it brought back great memories of…

Zermatt Switzerland!

And so I got to thinking how certain songs really remind me of places I’ve traveled, but they aren’t always the place you’d think.

The Ke$ha song in particular reminds me of a few years ago when I hardly knew her music but my daughter who was 10 or so at the time would occasionally listen.  And on the last day of my trip to Zermatt I was sitting outside, right off the ski slope after a hard day of skiing by myself, having a few drinks and “Tik Tok” came on.  And there was just something about sitting outside with a couple of Gl├╝hwein while it snowed, legs aching from a hard day on the slopes, that now to me “Tik Tok” and the Hennu Stall almost at the base near the Zermatt gondola will always go hand in hand.

Funny enough, I have another offbeat Zermatt memory too.  There’s another place that always had a pretty good band and I’d go there for a couple drinks in the evenings both times I’ve been to Zermatt.  And it seemed no matter who the band was, they played the same classic American rock.  I have fabulous memories of a crowded bar, completely full of Europeans still in ski gear, singing along at the top of their voices to “Sweet Home Alabama.”  It’s now my favorite Swiss song.

I was in Spain for the first time about 15 years ago now.  I went with my cousins whose father grew up in Spain and still lives there part time.  We stayed in his small hometown in the countryside, about an hour and a half drive north of Seville.  We spent a few days hanging out like locals, eating Jamon Iberico and Spanish tortilla and drinking a ton of Tio Pepe sherry.  And while there we heard some great Spanish music that I had a blast singing along to: Tu y Yo, Ole Ole Ole!  I came home and a few weeks later boy, was I surprised to see the brand new sensation Ricky Martin singing my “authentic” Spanish song live on the Grammys!  I own all of Ricky Martin's music now but I prefer his songs when the lyrics are in Spanish.

I kind of forced the association when I downloaded Toto’s “Africa” before my trip to Kenya and listened to it on the long van ride between the Masai Mara and Amboseli.  I will always link “Dancing Queen” by Abba with Nantucket where my daughter and I watched Mamma Mia at the Sconset Casino.  Beyonce’s “Love on Top” means Miami where last year my friend Heather and I danced around our hotel room getting ready for a night out on the town.  Pink’s “Just Like a Pill” somehow became the song I play on repeat during my 90 minute drive to the Jersey shore.  I could go on and on.

Who knows what muscial memories I will make next!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On finding time and places to go.

Unlike many of the travel bloggers I have now started to read, I have to fit my trips into the vacation time given to me by my employer.  I have coworkers who roll over unused time year to year and complain they can never take off or use it all.  Not me!  Can't even imagine that.  I use every last day and wish for more.  I am fortunate though that I have a good job with a decent amount of vacation time (for an American) and it pays me well so I can afford to do all these things I do.  But it’s still a challenge sometimes fitting everything in.  I'm not really complaining though, it’s an awfully good problem to have.  And figuring it all out is half the fun.

2013’s trip planning is working out really well so far.  My big winter trip to Burma is going to span not only a couple of company holidays (always something I try to leverage) but will also take place in both 2013 and 2014 since I leave on Christmas Day and will be gone through the first week of the New Year.  The past couple of years I’ve needed to save quite a few vacation days for what’s become my annual two week winter trip to Asia. But now, only needing a few days from 2013’s allotment for this big trip I am suddenly flush with time off this year!

So far I’ve taken 3 days off for a short ski trip to Utah with some friends and will take off this Friday for a long weekend in Miami.  I’m taking a spontaneous writing, cooking, sightseeing trip to Umbria for a week in May and then later this summer my daughter and I will be headed to Croatia for a week.  But amazingly, even with all these plans I still have a few days off to spare!

And never letting the time off go to waste, I am trying to come up with a trip tagging on the last few unaccounted for vacation days to the 4th of July holiday, which could amount to yet another week traveling somewhere!  Another incentive to go somewhere then is that my daughter will be spending a good part of the summer away at camp, so I really want to make the most of the time and flexibility I will have with her gone.

But where to go?!

There are a number of places high on my bucket list, but July isn’t the right time for many of them.  I’m also leaning toward a simple but exotic spot where I don’t feel compelled to sightsee every minute.  I'll be doing plenty of that on my other trips.  I’m imagining an unfamiliar place where I can relax, maybe read or write, eat some good food, but also achieve that feeling I get somewhere different and far from home.

I have quite a few frequent flyer miles on the airline I usually fly for business travel and in trying to find some direction and focus for this trip, I thought maybe I should just use those miles and go wherever they could take me.  Being able to get there for free is as good a reason as any to go somewhere!  So I logged onto the airline’s website and typed in PHL as my home airport and just started picking random destinations they service.  And while I have a fairly large number of miles, I suppose with either a summer or holiday premium, I was short by 10,000 or 20,000 miles for a few destinations and others were just completely sold out.  It’s kind of crazy that I can't redeem all those miles for a trip basically anywhere in the world, but I guess that's the way it is.  So looks like if I want to go somewhere I am paying for it with cold hard cash.

So now I am back to where I started.  Where to go, where to go?

Thought maybe an exotic spa somewhere?  I loved the look of Amangiri in the Utah desert.  And a stay at an Aman Resorts hotel is on my bucket list, so a trip there would kill two birds with one stone.  I liked that idea a lot.  Until I saw the price tag.  I am not a cheap traveler by any means but their rates are just shocking. SHOCKING. Sadly, I think that's out.

Maybe Iceland?  Could get there pretty easily and it definitely looks gorgeous.  But maybe I'd get more caught up than I really intend to in seeing everything and traversing all over the country?  Also, the food.  I am generally looking for a fabulous food destination and I'm not sure Iceland has such a great reputation.

Mexico?  Has possibilities I suppose.  But where?  I would need to be off the beaten path.  The touristy crowds and all-inclusive resorts in Mexico are just not my style at all.  But tacos and margaritas definitely fit the bill foodwise.

It’s harder than you’d think, just trying to pick any destination on the planet and go.  But a really good problem to have.  So? Where should I go?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chopsticks in Paris.

I knew I was a traveler, a real solo traveler, after I ran away to Paris for the weekend.

And I really did run away.  Like a kid runs away from home, I ran away by myself to Paris.

Why I ran away is a long involved story not appropriate or necessary to explain, but one day in late October a handful of years ago I knew I had to get out of town.  And I had to get far out of town where my cell phone wouldn’t work, where I didn’t have access to email and where I could be completely alone, bothered by no one.  Such a place is probably nearly impossible to find these days where we are connected to everyone everywhere, but this was just long enough ago that in Paris I could be unplugged, cut off from the things I wanted to get away from, and it was also just close enough that I could get there and back in a long weekend.

On a Wednesday evening I decided I would leave the next night, arriving in Paris for my long weekend on Friday morning.  I bought a cheap last minute plane ticket, packed some clothes and my hippest trench coat  and before I knew it I was at the airport.  Unfortunately, I was seated in the lone single seat smack dab in the midst of what must have been close to 50 American high school kids on some kind of field trip to France.  Until just this moment remembering my seat assignment on this trip, I’d been thinking my more recent last row next to the bathroom seat that didn’t recline between Shanghai and New York was my worst in flight experience.  Both were pretty bad.  

Nevertheless, I arrived in Paris having had little sleep but happy to be away. So happy to be away.

I’d also booked a little inexpensive two star hotel not far from the Opera House.  I took the train from the airport and wandered around a bit until I found it and was surprised to realize that it was right in the middle of Japantown.  

The trip to Paris turned out to be a pretty nontraditional one and the stay in Japantown was just the start.  Having been to the city before and having seen the things you have to see, I avoided most of the most common tourist sites.  Instead I mostly just wandered around, window shopped, people watched, stopping to eat and drink when I got tired. I didn't really do anything.

I had dinner near my hotel in Japantown the evening I arrived.  It was probably one of the first times I’d eaten alone, by myself at a table in a restaurant.  I was trying to be cool about it and not look as awkward as I felt.  This being years ago, all the Parisians out for a Friday night on the town were lazily and oh so romantically smoking cigarettes while eating and drinking during their meal.  And it was then for the first time in my life I regretting never taking up smoking.  If I'd  known how to bum a cigarette from the next table in French, I might have done it.  Maybe if I’d had a cigarette to focus my energies on, sitting there alone in a funky Japanese restaurant in the middle of Paris wouldn’t have felt so weird.  It got a little weirder when fairly new to Japanese food and chopsticks use, I was brought grilled and skewered shrimps with the heads on and only chopsticks as utensils.  But I mustered through both being alone and the shrimp heads and ended up really enjoying myself. 

I spent the rest of the weekend eating non-traditional Parisian food like falafel and hamburgers, visiting shops geared more toward locals like those selling books and kitchen supplies, and generally just enjoying the sights and sounds of Paris in the autumn.  It was a short no nonsense trip, but one that changed my life.  I learned I could get somewhere and back by myself and love every minute of discovering a city, even one I'd been to before, on my own.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It's not always Asia.

I’m headed to Miami next week for something like my 10th or 12th visit.  A real traveler might ask why go back to the same place again and again when there’s a whole world of places to visit?  And indeed, there are. I agree.  But Miami meets all my needs for a trip so much closer to home than say, Yangon.  I can get to Miami in a little more than two hours by plane from Philadelphia.  I can leave my snowy neighborhood in the morning and be laying on the beach in the sun well before lunch.  On the other hand, that shouldn’t be the only reason to visit a destination either.  I can get to Camden, New Jersey in 30 minutes, but that doesn’t mean I want to visit.

I travel because I want to be somewhere as unlike my suburban Philly neighborhood as I can get (although Camden, the drug dealing murder capital of the area also meets that criteria!).  The feeling I get in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by people who look and act nothing like me and visiting places that resemble nothing in my hometown is why I travel.  It’s one of the reasons I love Southeast Asia so much. The people there could not be more different than me and my middle class friends and coworkers.  And the same, oddly enough, goes for Miami.

I love the Latin vibe and the crazy partying that goes on well into the early morning.  I love the outrageous and glamorous hotels.  I love the sexy, revealing clothes flaunted by men and women alike.  I love it all because it's so different.  Being there gives me a few days to strip away the working professional boring mom exterior and become someone I am not for a little while.  

Or maybe I am really myself in Miami and I just hide it most days at home?

Don't get me wrong, I love Europe too.  I enjoy the culture, the architecture, the history, the food.  But Europeans look and dress an awful lot like me (OK, maybe a more put-together, stylish me), they live in homes and apartments a lot like mine, drive cars and have jobs similar to mine.  In Asia, or even Miami for that matter, it's just all so different.

In Asia where everything is unfamiliar I am an adventurous, interesting and courageous woman who jets off by herself to parts unknown.  When back home, aren't I just another drone working to pay the bills, save for retirement and raise my teenage daughter?  In Luang Prabang, Laos I can be someone else.  Someone who doesn’t have a big mortgage or a desk job.  There I'm an aspiring travel writer, or photographer, or a cook.  In Laos my life is romantic and creative.  I could be anybody.  I am anybody.

Last spring, The Raleigh Miami Beach

So in just a handful of days I will be back in Miami all dressed up, mojito in hand.  Who will I be?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I hear Umbria is nice in May.

I woke up to an email from my Aunt, my mother’s sister who lives in New York City. She’s a writer.  Not for a living, but she has been writing short stories and poetry for as long as I can remember. She sent me an email with a link to this website. And she just said, “Hey, I saw this in the classifieds of one of my writing magazines and thought of you.” 

So.  I got into work early today and clicked on the link and I saw some stuff that looked pretty cool, writer’s trips to Italy, Guatemala, Mexico and Slovenia of all places, I think it was.  But then I clicked on a trip to Umbria and  I immediately got the chills. You go to Umbria, stay in an old farmhouse with a small group of people. You write, you cook and you sightsee but the part that gave me the chills was when I saw they called the trip An Italian Writing Affair. I’d read a fabulous travel memoir back in the fall, one that in addition to making me want to read every travel memoir I could get my hands on, inspired me to make some changes in my life (namely, ditching a guy who was treating me like a mistress even though he wasn’t married) and it was called An Italian Affair.  And in a weird but wonderful coincidence, the author of that very memoir is the writing mentor on this retreat in Umbria.  And so quicker than my fingers could even type I was emailing the organizers to see if there was a spot for me.

I told them basically look, I am a traveler but not really a writer. I dream I am a writer, I imagine I am a writer but really, I am just a working stiff at a job that has nothing to do with writing. But if you’ll take me, I will come.  In fact, I am dying to come!

I refreshed my email just about every minute until only a few hours later I heard back: they have a couple spots and no worries Laura (oh my god, I am on a first name basis with the author now!), Laura’s teaching and writing techniques don’t require an advanced level of skill.  So, a little finagling of schedules and a quick check of the bank account, I am headed to Umbria in May! 

There will be trattorias and truffles and workshops and readings.  I am not sure I will come back a writer but boy, it will be one hell of a nice start.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On footwear.

A friend posted a challenge when I said I wasn’t sure what I should write about. She gave me a few suggestions of ways to approach what I might write here but then like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and his famous “Plastics” she said “Shoes.”  And I thought for a minute and then said to myself, “Huh, oddly enough there’s probably a lot I could say about shoes and traveling.”

I could talk about what shoes I take on trips.  The ones I wear on the plane versus the ones I wear walking around sightseeing.  I could talk about the shoes I see in the countries I visit.  For what seems like a topic very unrelated to travel, there’s quite a bunch of things shoes and travel have in common.

The first rule for anyone who considers themselves a traveler is no sneakers.  Everyone can picture the stereotypical American tourist in khaki shorts, baseball cap, fanny pack and sneakers.  And funny enough, that accurately describes most Chinese and Japanese tourists I’ve seen.  But wanting to stay as far as possible from looking like an American tourist I won’t wear sneakers.  Although one could easily argue that my Patagonia hiking shoes bear a very close resemblance to a sneaker.

Still with the mud from the Plain of Jars, Laos.
I bought these shoes for our trip to Kenya.  I thought that we’d be walking around the plains and in lieu of sneakers, they might do the trick.  But in reality we did relatively little walking on our safari and instead spent much of our time in the back seat of a Jeep.  And from there most any shoe would have sufficed.  But now they’ve become my airplane shoes.  Something comfortable, easy to walk in, fairly easy on and off.  Something I can handle being on my feet for 24 or more hours at a time through various modes of transportation until I arrive at my final destination.  

My most recent trips have been to Asia and once arriving there one is faced with a somewhat difficult shoe dilemma.  Shoes are prohibited in Buddhist temples.  Shoes are also removed entering many businesses.  And most Asians take off their shoes at the door to their homes and therefore it’s expected that by extension you don’t wear shoes in your hotel room.

I remember the first time I saw this, on my first trip to Asia when I traveled to Thailand.  I went to a little visited island called Koh Lanta.  Small island, down in the south of Thailand, a bit of a distance away from the more well known Phuket.  I left my beachfront hotel one morning and was walking along the avenue behind the hotel.  It was early in the morning, I was jet lagged, the sun was barely up.  At the time I had a pretty serious Diet Pepsi addiction and to be honest I was in search of a fix.  There were a few Thais out and about on motorbikes, headed to work.  I came upon a 7-11 and thought aha, I've found what I am looking for!  As I approached the door I saw several pairs of flip flops and other shoes strewn across the front step.  Later, I remember seeing what exactly goes down.  The Thais don’t lose a single second, there’s not a moment’s hesitation as they approach the door, slip out of their shoes and enter.  For Americans such myself, it's an awkward transition.  You approach the door.  You stop.  You kick off one flip flop, maybe your foot releases it, or may be it dangles halfway on and halfway off.  You brush it off.  You stand and do the same with the other foot.  Only then do you enter the store barefoot.  And if you're me, you try to improve your time and skill each time you enter a shop.  I recall walking up the driveway or parking lot, thinking in my mind as I approached the door how I was going to keep moving, keep moving while removing my shoes. I would be a smooth, swift Thai and do it quickly and in one continuous motion.  Never happened.

The same thing goes down at the temples, only there it seems like there’s a little less pressure to move quickly.  Thank god because it’s really not possible.  I happened to be wearing flip flops on that first trip to Thailand because I was at the beach.  But in general, flip flops are not really appropriate footwear for a day of sightseeing through any Asian city.  So what to wear that is comfortable but can be easily taken off and put back on again and again throughout the day?  Well after quite a bit of thought about this, I bought what I think is a slightly more feminine version of the Teva athletic sandal.  They don’t slip on and off quite as easily as a flip flop, but they are comfortable for a full day of walking and require only bending down and adjusting the strap to get them on and off.  Hey, no one ever said traveling was pretty or fashionable.

Good in theory, not in practice.

I also bought these slip on things for my most recent trip with the temple visiting in mind.  They lasted one day and I never wore them again.  I felt like my feet were constantly backing out of the shoe with every step I took. Also, even less pretty and fashionable. 

So for the trip to Laos I packed the athletic sandals, those slip on whatever they are shoes, and as is my usual custom now, I wore the hiking shoes when I left home.  But in packing for the two week trip I decided to bring a little casual knit dress.  You never know where you might want to go out to eat or who you might meet, right?  And along those same lines, I thought I might as well bring some dressy sandals too, to complete the outfit.  Well let this be a lesson to all of you: should you ever travel to Laos, leave the gold Tory Burch sandals at home.  There's not a place in the whole country where you need them.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Angkor: Down Memory Lane.

So what to do with this silly blog?  Yes I do travel quite a bit, but I am certainly not somewhere new worth writing about every week, or even every month.  So I thought that maybe I could reminisce about some trips?

I spent most of a year planning a solo trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, with a short stop in Dubai on the way, finally taking the trip over Christmas 2011.  While the trip itself turned out to be fabulous, I have found that planning, researching, and investigating a trip is almost as much fun as the trip itself.  I love looking at all the hotels, trying to find the one with just the right ambience, in just the right location for just the right price.  I look all over the internet for cheap flights and the best route to get from here to there.  So, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to arrange for a private guide to take me around the Angkor temples in Cambodia.  From everything I’d read you need to hire a guide and a driver, this isn’t a do it yourself kind of thing.  I’d read that you would have no idea what you were seeing, if you didn't.   And now, having been there, I completely agree.

Angkor Village Hotel, Siem Reap
I ended up arranging for my guide and his driver through my hotel.  I had chosen a pretty nice, authentic place a little off the beaten path in Siem Reap, the town nearest all Angkor temples.  In my emails back and forth with the hotel staff coordinating my arrival, they suggested reserving a guide through them and after months and months of planning, thinking and organizing, I finally just decided to go with it.  And it being a pretty nice place, I knew they would charge me more than what I read many guidebooks and websites said I could expect to pay just hiring someone off the street, or at any one of the many local shops geared toward tourists.  The books said I could pay as little as $5 a day for a driver and same amount for a guide.  But I was told by my hotel that my guide would run me $20 each day and another $10 for the driver.   Which, while more, is still not a lot of money.  Especially considering what they ended up doing for me.

They both spent 8 hours a day with me, for two days.  My guide was a man named Pol.  He was, I am guessing in his mid 30s, and was a petite guy.  Maybe just over 5 feet and not much more than 100 pounds.  He and I spent the days walking in the heat through temple after temple, him talking almost nonstop about what we were seeing.  We'd spend an hour or two at each stop, each temple.  The driver, who spoke no English, would drop us off and would stay with the car, and then usually later he would drive to pick us up at a temple exit different from where we started.  

First view of Angkor Wat!
We spent two days visiting the temples at Angkor and what an amazing, incredible experience.  It was truly unbelievable when I came upon that first view of Angkor Wat that is in every article or website about the place.  And Pol turned out to be good.  His English was dicey, but he was eager and knew what he was talking about.  Or if he didn’t, the stories he made up were good.  But it wasn't until we went 40km into the countryside to see another couple temples, and then to the largest freshwater lake in Asia, Tonle Sap to see the floating villages, that I really started to think about Pol's life in Cambodia.

We made small talk throughout the two days.  I knew he had a wife and twin sons, who were about 10.  I knew that the sons were not biologically his, that he’d married his wife who was widowed when the boys were babies.  I knew he’d gone to school to become a licensed guide to the temples and had the official patch on his shirtsleeve to prove it.  He’d never been very far out of Siem Reap, and had never been out of Cambodia.  And I could tell that Pol, with his relatively white collar job, was doing far better than most Cambodians I’d seen. 

After driving into the countryside and thinking more about Pol and the driver, all of the sudden it hit me that Pol was making his living on the $20 a day I was paying him.  As his full time job. And the driver, using his own car, was making $10.  And that's assuming they got every dime I paid my hotel for their services.

Toward the end of our two days together we went to some villages.  And in his not so hot English, Pol told me, "They are poverty."  And I was able to see that yes, indeed they are.  These people have nothing.  Literally not a pot to piss in.  They live in shacks.  On stilts because of the horrific flooding the area encounters every year with the monsoons.  And it was rare I saw anyone wearing a pair of shoes. But yet, most little homes I saw looked well taken care of.  What they had looked clean, swept and orderly.  I also saw that these people will do anything for money.  They have to, to survive.  They sell coconuts, water, trinkets.  Cut down trees and sell the firewood.  They fish.  And still they are poverty. 

They are a small people, Pol included, and I am not sure how much of that is genes, or malnourishment.  We spoke with a young girl selling jewelry at one of the temples.  Pol, speaking to her in English chastised, "Why aren't you in school?  How old are you?"  And she replied that she had been in school, earlier that morning.  Pol explained that kids in Cambodia go to school only 4 hours a day, but 6 days a week.  They’re expected to work and help their families, when they’re not in school.  She went on to say she was 11.  My daughter was 11 at the time. I could not even begin to picture my own daughter working to help support her family.

Our last stop were the floating villages around Tonle Sap. And we happened to see a VIP as Pol called him.  A very high ranking government official who was with friends at a fish farm where we stopped on our longboat trip around the lake.  And this VIP and friends motored away in a very nice, but very regular weekend motorboat.  The kind you'd see at any marina, anywhere here in the US.  And Pol turned to me and said almost incredulously, wistfully even,  "Did you know there are regular families in Europe, regular people who have boats like that?"

Oh Pol, if you only knew.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Summer vacation.

Been having trouble recently deciding where my almost 13 year old daughter Claire and I should go this summer on vacation.  For the past 4 or 5 summers we’ve taken a fairly exotic trip together.  And I guess it’s become our thing.

It all started on sort of a whim.  We’d been doing the usual things, going to the Jersey or Delaware beaches, venturing as far as Nantucket one summer.  And we actually had enjoyed Nantucket so much that we’d booked a return visit. 

I'd been enjoying traveling all over the world myself, but was beginning to think that the idea of returning somewhere again and again had an appeal for a family trip, however small a family we may be.  I grew up spending a week each summer in Ocean City, New Jersey.  It was nothing fancy, we’d rent a house and go to the beach and the boardwalk.  We read tons of books since there was never a TV in the houses that we rented.  I am not sure if that’s because of the price point my parents could afford, or if it's a sign of how old I am.  Sometimes my Aunt and her daughters came along, or would visit for a couple days.  Either way, I grew up knowing my way around Ocean City and sort of liked that I had a place that was my vacation spot as a kid.  And as much as a traveler as I am, I thought that maybe Nantucket would be my daughter’s spot. 

But at the last minute, our plans for a return trip that summer changed (long dramatic story involving a man we'd actually met in Nantucket that previous summer who became my boyfriend, and then wasn't) and fairly heartbroken I said, “Screw that, if we’re not going back to Nantucket, well then we’re doing something and it is going to be GOOD.”

And I didn’t think very long before I knew the place we’d go. The only place I’d been that I could see making up for this last minute change in plans was Greece.  Santorini specifically.  I wasn’t even willing to take the risk to go someplace new on the off chance it wouldn’t be great. I knew it had to be fantastic and Santorini was the only place up for the task.

Now, years later after all the places I’ve been, Santorini still remains the most beautiful, amazing, gorgeous place I have ever visited.  The first time I went was back in 1997, a medical school graduation present to myself and my husband at the time.  We spent two weeks in Athens, Mykonos, Paros and Santorini.  I’d already known by then I loved to travel, having tagged along on several of his business trips to California, London, and Prague.  So when my graduation came and I knew I was about to undertake a number of years of 100 plus hour work weeks with little vacation time for next to no money, we took a trip somewhat beyond our means and I have no regrets.  It solidified my love for travel but also showed me one of the most gorgeous places on the planet I still have ever seen.  So... when I needed a reliably gorgeous place to spend a relaxing week with my daughter Santorini was top on the list.  About 4 weeks before our intended departure, I booked two plane tickets to Santorini and a week-long stay in a studio apartment in Oia.
Red Beach
It turned out to be a great trip and the start of my daughter’s love for travel.  We rented a car and each day after waking up late and eating a nice European breakfast, we would drive to a different beach on the island.  Perissa, Kamari, Red Beach.  We’d lounge in the sun, eat a leisurely Greek lunch at one of the tavernas that line each beach, then sit in the sun and swim some more.  Then we'd pack it up in time to have a swim in the pool back at our apartment and a snack (for her) or beer (for me) before getting cleaned up to go out to dinner in town.  It was a perfect trip and exactly what I’d hoped for when I booked it.

On the long flight home, when I was at the point that always happens where I just want to be back home, the novelty of being tired and crammed into a flying aluminum tube over, my daughter leaned over and asked me, “Where are we going next year, mom?  And it has to be farther than Greece!”

And so it began.

The following winter we sat down at my laptop on the couch and tried to come up with a location for our next summer trip.  I said basically that for all intents and purposes we could go anywhere.  Anywhere!  So we pulled up a map of the world and started to think.  We’d already decided that a beach had to be a component of the trip, since we both love the beach.  Neither of us are particularly museum and historical sites kind of people.  Certainly not Claire at age 9, which I guess she was at this point.  And frankly, I’m not much for all that either.  So we looked at the map and she pointed to Africa and said, “How about Africa?  Looks like there must be lots of beaches there!”  And I confirmed that yes, I was sure there was, but if we were going all the way to Africa, we weren’t just going to the beach, we would go on a safari.  And I explained to her what that was all about and well, she was sold.
Claire and a Masai warrior
So with that extensive forethought (not!) I did a little investigation and promptly booked a two week trip to Kenya, 10 days on safari in 3 different spots followed by a few days at a Kenyan beach.  And the trip was fabulous.  Words cannot explain.

The following summer I made an impulsive last minute decision to rent a house at the Jersey shore for the entire summer and so we didn’t take our big trip.  But then last summer, I had a hard time coming up with something until I took a business trip to Barcelona.  I was there working and suddenly thought, Hey, Spain is nice and there are beaches here too! 

And so (it is turning out to be a bit of a theme here) without a lot of thought I booked us an apartment in Marbella Spain.  We spent a week driving along the coast to Gibraltar, taking the ferry to Tangier Morocco, enjoying the beaches in and around Marbella.

Evening view from our rootop in Marbella,
overlooking the Mediterranean
Which is all a long winded wind up to this summer.

Where to go?

I thought maybe Galapagos.  Seems to meet our needs.  It would be an aquatic safari basically.  But I found out that despite it being at the equator and despite it being summer, the water is pretty cool that time of year.  Wet suit required for snorkeling.  And the cost?  Oh boy, double the price of Kenya, for half the length of the trip.  Egypt?  Lots of cool stuff and even beaches nearby.  But there’s all that civil unrest.  Not to mention it’s 102 in the shade in August.  Machu Picchu?  Sounds great.  Definitely a bucket list worthy trip.  And there are beaches in Peru, just fairly difficult to get to. But for some reason, I couldn’t get Claire really psyched on that one.  I'd really loved what I’d read about Jordan.  Swimming in the Dead Sea, some antiquities, Petra.  But again with the oppressive summer heat.  I love Asia and have been there on my own just about every winter for the past few years.  But there’s a reason I’ve been going in the winter, our summer is monsoon season there. 

It seems like it should be easy, shouldn’t it?  Plan a summer vacation anywhere in the world.  But when push comes to shove it’s my hard earned money at stake and my just as valuable time off. 

But it seems like impulsiveness wins again.  I get tons of emails from various travel sites and tour guides and generally I only refer to these for some inspiration, ideas on places to go.  I am not a fan of group travel.  Why take a trip following a group around when you can do it all on your own?  Planning the trip is half the fun.  But yesterday’s spam was about family trips.  Organized and planned with families in mind.  Itineraries geared toward families and kids. And I thought Hey, that’s a win win!  At her age my daughter would rather be around other kids, and traveling with her alone occasionally leaves me wishing for just a little adult conversation.  And lo and behold there was a family trip with some beach time, kayaking, ferries to islands, old walled cities and the like, scheduled precisely when we have the time to take it.  So a spontaneous deposit later, this summer’s trip will be spent on the coastline in Croatia!

Watch this space!