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!