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?