Friday, July 26, 2013

Travel inspirations

What got me interested in travel? Who were my inspirations as a kid? What as an adult prompted me to finally throw away job and security to take off and do what I'd always dreamed of doing?

Childhood inspirations...

I saw a piece over on Huffington Post about 5 women who changed the way we look at travel. Their number five spot was occupied by a woman who truly did help jump start my interest. Carmen Sandiego. This fictional thief had a game and a TV show that I was obsessed with when I was a kid. I used to dig through the atlas to find answers to questions that would help me find her. I learned about currency and flags. I learned about world capitals and places of interest. My world completely opened up because of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?". The HuffPost piece says that Carmen Sandiego taught us that the "world is beautiful and traveling is one big adventure." I would agree with that.

But even before Carmen there was my dad.

God, at an extremely early age my dad inspired me! Stories of his college adventures down in Mexico. His trip to Florida after graduation. His dreams of one day owning a sailboat and taking his family on a trip around the world. That never happened, but his enthusiasm infected at least one of his kids. I share his love of meeting new people. I share his love of maps and curiosity about the world. He encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on, which only spurred my desire to see everything. I never tired of asking him to repeat his stories, and at night I'd close my eyes and dream of tossing some stuff in a backpack and going off on adventures of my own.

Another major inspiration to me as a kid was Indiana Jones. I was only a baby when the first movie came out in 1981, so the first one I saw in the theater was the third (out in 1989). But my parents had already introduced us to Raiders and Temple by that point and I was hooked. The big maps with dots showing where Indy was going (I have maps on my walls at home with red lines showing everywhere I've been, as homage to the maps from Indiana Jones). The amazing locations, exotic and full of interesting food and people and things to look at! As a kid I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be Indiana Jones. No, not to fight Nazis or be an archeologist. But to travel! To meet fascinating people, see exotic places, and have adventures. And yeah, to look awesome in leather jacket and fedora while doing so. *Grins* 

And finally, another real-life inspiration in a deeply personal way was my cousin Lesley. *Smiles* I remember her so vividly. I was 12 and she was 24 when I really got to know her. Fresh from backpacking through Europe after university and at loose ends she moved to Alaska from California to try something new. Lesley was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Smart, and fun, and full of life. Full also of stories and adventures. Willing to try new things and willing to fail. She was outgoing and able to make friends with anybody and everybody, it seemed. (Yes, this trait does run in my family!) Lesley lived in Anchorage only for a few years before she took off again. To hike the Appalachian Trail. Then settled in Seattle, where she continues to live today. 

She just seemed to me so confident and sure of herself. I remember at 12 I was nothing like that and with that memory of her as my role model Lesley helped me become the person I am today. Someone willing to follow passions and dreams. Or even randomly occurring fantasies. :)

So there you have it. When you combine natural curiosity with real and fictional people who inspire you... there really is nothing you can do about it. Travel was something I knew I had to do with my life.

Adult promptings...

Turning 30. That's what did it. Realizing that while I'd seen so much of the United States I still had never traveled out of the country. I'd let fear keep me from doing something I'd always wanted to do. I'd let myself keep saying "you can't afford that" or "you can't do that by yourself." And I finally said "fuck that." Life is not infinite. And you only get one shot at it. I guess I had my mid-life crisis a little early. *Laughs* But there few better ways to handle it than going off and seeing the world. :)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A letter to my nieces and nephews... (And their parents)

To Emily, Elsie, Hugh, Gayatri, Lavanya, Hailey, Charley, Quincy, and Jatindra...

As you're probably aware (or will be once you're old enough to become aware of these things), your Aunt Lori is a bit of a travel nut. I started getting interested in travel when I was only six years old. Grandpa Mike introduced me to maps. And told me stories of HIS adventures. And allowed me to be part of our family's move from Arizona to Alaska by discussing the trip with me every step of the way and going over the maps and working out where we'd be going. He let me ask questions and he always had the atlas out to help me find whatever answers I needed to find. 

I used to spin our globe and close my eyes and stick my finger randomly on the spinning ball to find new and exciting places to look up in the atlas. I also read every book I could get my hands on.

And I dreamed. I dreamed CONSTANTLY! Of far away places. Of places in this country and of places on the other side of the world. Of placed I'd read about in books or seen in movies or places I found by randomly poking at the globe.

The Indiana Jones movies came out when I was a kid, and I dreamed of growing up to BE Indiana Jones. No, I didn't want to be an archeologist, or fight Nazis. I wanted to travel the world and have fascinating adventures and meet interesting people. I wanted a big map of the world and I wanted to draw lines all over the world showing where I had been. And push in pins to indicate all the places I wanted to go.

Travel, in my mind, is essential to being human. It allows you to see and experience how other people live. It opens you to cultures and languages very different from your own. You learn so much and what you learn can be helpful to any career or goal you set for yourself. It teaches you how to adapt to any given situation. It teaches you the values of patience and how to be resilient in the face of adversity. It is also simply quite a lot of fun!

I was 30 the first time I traveled out of the United States. Despite all of those dreams as a child, travel frightened me. I thought, I can't afford this. I thought, I can't do this on my own and no one can go with me. I thought, I'm bipolar with major anxiety disorder... travel is something I can't do.

Well kids... travel is something I can do. It is something anyone can do. And it is something I very much hope you will be given the opportunities to do. And I want to help you do it. I want to help you all know that travel IS something you don't have to just dream about but can accomplish in reality.

With your parents' permission, I want to take you traveling (at some point within a few years after you turn 16). But this isn't a free ride. I expect something in return for this adventure I'll be taking you on.

You will pick where you want to go. If your parents and I decide it is feasible for us, you'll write me an essay on why you want to go there. It doesn't have to be a GOOD reason, but there needs to be something that has inspired you. Hugh told me recently he wants to go to Rome (I too would love to visit Rome, so I'm excited about this if he still wants to go when he's older!). He's 10, and he saw Rome through the game Assassin's Creed and it inspired him. That's a reason! I still want to know what about Rome through the eyes of that game caught his attention, so keep that in mind.

Next... You'll be doing budget research. How much is the trip going to cost? Plane tickets, cost of lodging, cost of transportation while there, meals (spending money will be up to you), etc. To find that stuff out you'll have to dig up guide books and travel websites. I am not made of money so we will be on smaller budgets and won't be staying in fancy hotels, so do your research well. I'll be doing my own research and when we are both done we'll compare notes and figure out the best budget for our trip. 

You'll also be looking up things you'd like to do or see while we're there. We may see everything, we may see none of it, we will likely be somewhere in the middle. But doing the research ahead of time prepares you for whatever may pop up while we're there.

Why am I asking you to do all of this for a trip *I* will be taking *you* on? Ok, the first item is just my own damn curiosity. And also because I want to show you that even the smallest kernel of interest can blossom into something pretty amazing if you let it. But the rest is so you know how to do it yourself when the time comes for you to travel on your own. So you know that this is something you CAN do on your own. And I sincerely hope you will.

It sounds hard. But once you start doing it you really get the hang of it. So practice, even before this trip. Pretend you're going to go on a trip somewhere and plan the trip. I used to, all over the world I visited in my imagination. The Internet is a wonderful thing in helping you do this. Make a list of every place you might possibly want to visit and go read about them. WikiTravel is an awesome resource for a basic introduction to a wide variety of places. Go to the library and check out travel books. Find inspiration any way you can, and hold onto that.

Why am I doing this? Because I can. Because I love you all so much it fires me up and makes me want to help in this small way. I'm not a parent. I'm never going to have kids of my own. This is my choice. I love being your aunt so much. I love being an adult you can always talk to and come to if you need non-parental adult advice. 

Right this second no, I can't afford to be doing this. But I expect by the time you all start coming of age my world will have been back on its feet long enough for me to do this. And so I wanted you to be aware of it in advance, because I want you to dream. I want you to think and wonder where we might go. I want you to open your minds and your curiosity about the world around you. I think it is important.

To my siblings... Hi!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Traveling solo

I was at a party yesterday and got to talking to a lovely young lady. She was 21, and as we talked she mentioned feeling very uncomfortable about traveling solo. She told me a story about having once gone to St. Petersburg as part of an 8-week intensive language course and feeling lonely and homesick the entire time because she just didn't know how to go about meeting people to spend time with while traveling. The whole trip was miserable for her and she wished she had known how to have a good time there by herself.

Since all of my trips have been solo, I thought about what it is that a) makes me enjoy traveling solo and b) what someone could do to perhaps make it easier for them to do something similar. I'm pretty sure this is a topic I've brought up before, but it is worth revisiting, I think.

I'd love it if people chimed in with their opinions here as well. *Smiles* Just remember, these are my opinions based on my experiences and I am an extrovert who truly loves being around people. So I totally understand that in some cases what one person can do or would enjoy another person very strongly cannot or would not.

Why do I enjoy traveling solo?

I have a whole lot more reasons, but I thought for this I'd just cover the big three...

1. Freedom. Freedom to sleep at your own schedule, do activities at your own schedule, go where YOU want to go, and adjust things with no notice at all. Focus on your interests, and your desires. Traveling solo allows you to be selfish. *Smiles* 

2. Random social. In my experiences I have had more opportunities to meet really cool new people when alone than when with a friend or group. Because when alone, I find myself a) more eager to interact with other human beings, and b) better able to just slip into conversation with a total stranger (or strangers) and then let my first point take over with regards to plans.

3. Time to just be in my own head. This is hugely important to me. Because despite being an extrovert, I am also bipolar and I require time to just let go and be in my own head without anyone around to pull me away from what I'm doing. You don't have to be bipolar to need this. It's actually pretty common, from what I have heard from friends. And traveling or doing something solo, I have found, can often be the perfect way to let go of things and just BE in the moment.

Advice for traveling solo:

1. Learn to really enjoy your own company. Eat out at restaurants by yourself. Go to a movie by yourself. If extrovert me is in charge of my brain I watch the people around me when out and about by myself. I eavesdrop on conversations at the table next to me or the people standing in front of me in line. If I need quiet brain time I read or I write in my journal or sketch. 

2. Talk to the staff at your hotel (or guest house, or hostel). They are there to help you and are often very eager and able to do so. If, for instance, you're feeling homesick or lonely and need to be around other people who might understand how you're feeling, ask the hotel for suggestions on where the tourists tend to enjoy congregating. Because yeah, sometimes you just need that break from what you're doing and need a small taste of the familiar. Or find a Starbucks. *Laughs* 

3. Develop a routine, if you're going to be somewhere for more than a day or two. There a café near where you're staying? Stop in every morning on your way to your day's activities. Say hello to the people working there and if they aren't swamped maybe strike up a brief conversation. Smile at other patrons. Make yourself memorable somehow.  

4. Smile. Smiling goes a very long way to not only tricking yourself into feeling better if you're not, but also into opening yourself up to others. Say hello with a smile and you'll often get a smile back in return.  

5. Don't be afraid to or feel embarrassed about talking to strangers. Seriously. Many of my favorite travel memories came about because I opened my mouth and started talking to someone new.

6. Do pay attention to body language, though. If the people at the table next to you are sitting back in their chairs, arms gesticulating wildly, and smiling at or laughing with each other... there is a high likelihood that you interrupting their conversation with a comment based on something you heard them just say is going to be accepted and you might even be welcomed to join in on more of the conversation. If they are leaning in, talking quietly or intently, and not glancing around the room... best to leave them be. 

7. The same goes if you are out walking around and need to ask a stranger for help. Don't stop the person with small children he or she is trying to keep an eye on or the person waiting impatiently at a traffic light or moving briskly down the sidewalk unless it really is an emergency and you need to ask the first person you see. Look around you. See someone waiting for a bus? Or perhaps someone who has stepped outside to smoke a cigarette? Or duck into a nearby hotel or bank. They are good options. And if you are in a country where English is not readily spoken, keep in mind that younger people worldwide are often taught English in school so they might be more able to communicate with you if you don't speak the native language very well (or at all). But always keep in mind my next point!

8. Learn at least some of the native language. For very basic stuff I've found that when I'm traveling solo (hell, this is good advice for travel in general, solo or not!) being able to say hello in the native language often gets a very positive response and helps me feel not quite so alone. As does being able to say thank you. Learning the numbers helps when shopping, or needing to take busses or trains. I also like to learn how to tell someone I think their country or city is very beautiful. If you have allergies (like I do!), definitely learn how to say ALLERGY and either learn the local words for them or get them written down for you so you can show the paper to someone to help them understand! That's hugely important.

9. Definitely have a way to communicate with friends and family back home. Because yes, you will get lonely at times and homesick and sometimes the only way to feel better is to talk to the folks back home.

10. Allow yourself to feel your emotions. It is okay to get sad, or lonely, or frustrated. Just as it is okay to feel exhilarated and freeing that you're off on this adventure on your own having the time of your life. You don't need to feel angry or guilty for feeling any of those things.

11. Lastly... figure out what YOU like. What YOU are interested in. Not what the guide books or your friends tell you you should do, but what you actually want to do or see. And do them. There is nobody there to tell you you need to do anything else. Enjoy yourself. And you'll enjoy your trip.

Monday, July 1, 2013

My favorite travel memories

 After three months of doing nothing of note (excepting the various small victories that come after one has broken their leg!) I am itching for some travel. It is bugging me more than I can say to be doing nothing this summer. Going on no adventures. Seeing nothing new. Particularly since I had hoped for a trip to Montreal that now won't happen. So, I reminisce. I close my eyes and I take myself back to the various trips I have taken and remember a few of my favorite experiences.

I have so many more experiences that I'll never forget. But these are the ones that always jump to the forefront of my brain when I think about my various travels.

1. Sketching Paris

Paris was pure magic. A lot of my favorite memories come from there, but this is the one that always comes to mind first. I had been walking all day and was on my way the Musée d'Orsay. I'm not a big museum person and that is the one I'd decided I'd visit so I wouldn't leave Paris without having visited a single museum. But it was a beautiful day. Late December and it was the first truly beautiful day I'd had on my trip. Warm enough I even had to take off my coat. I remember crossing Pont Neuf and walking and noticing just how beautiful the city was. Then I crossed Pont des Arts and noticed all the benches.

I finally made it to the Museum and I just stood there. I looked at the line to enter, I thought about how much I would likely find the experience worthwhile. But then I thought about how nice a day it was. So I turned around and walked back to the footbridge to sit down and sketch Paris.

2. Quarterfinals of the 2010 South American Cup - Quito, Ecuador

I had just come back from Baños when Remy, the friend I'd made who worked at the hostel in Quito came up to me. "What are you doing Thursday night?" He asks, excitement radiating from him. "I'm going to be in Canoa, why?" "No! You need to be back here. Liga has made it to the South American Cup Quarterfinal and they're playing the first game here in Quito!"

Liga is one of Quito's soccer clubs. I had seen them play my first day in Ecuador and the experience had been so exciting that I agreed immediately to return to Quito a day early in order to attend this game. Only, I never made it out of Quito that week so it ended up not being an issue at all. And the day f the game, word spread throughout the hostel that a group was going to the game. 17 people ended up going, so we rented a bus to take us. 

The game was amazing. Brilliant soccer. In a stadium that holds around 40 or 50 thousand people there were probably 60 or 70 thousand people there. So the energy was pulsing. When Liga scored with 30 seconds left in the game, the stadium erupted. Drums and singing. Fires breaking out. Military on stand by in case of a riot. It was spectacular. And definitely a highlight of that trip.

3. A worldwide rivalry - Palolem, Goa (India)

While in Goa last year I spent a lot of time at Cocktails & Dreams, one of the restaurants along Palolem Beach. Since the season hasn't really kicked into full gear it was also one of the few restaurants along the beach that was a popular spot to chill in the evenings. There were a couple of pool tables in the back and a tiny TV in the back corner. But for the most part people came to eat, drink, smoke, and chill with friends.

Except for the night Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other and the game aired on that little teeny television.

Now, take into consideration that I live in Boston. And I am a New York Yankees fan. In the US this is huge. The rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox is legendary in this country. But oh holy gods... baseball rivalries in America are NOTHING compared to soccer rivalries around the world! And least of all the worldwide rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Just about every person packed into the bar that night was crowded around that small television set, glued to the game. Everybody had interest in one of the teams (I am personally a big Barcelona fan), and huge interest in the two star players. (Again, personally, between Messi and Ronaldo I think Lionel Messi is the greatest player currently on this planet.) Watching this game on TV was unlike any other experience I have ever had watching a game on TV. It was just as memorable as seeing the game live in Quito, though completely different.  And like that game, this is one I will never forget. 

(PS: Barcelona won.)

4. The kindness of a stranger - New York City

You always hear that New Yorkers are rude, unhelpful, and just generally awful. I love New York. And never once have I encountered those stereotypes in the people I've encountered in all my trips to that city.

In fact, my most memorable experience with regards to the kindness of a stranger happened in New York. It was my first solo trip to the city, and I got lost. Yes, you can get lost in New York, no matter what people tell you about how grid patterned cities make that impossible. I got seriously lost. Wandered and wandered and walked for ages trying to find something that would help me get my bearings. My feet were blistered, and it got dark, and I finally broke down. Sat on the curb alone in the street lit dark and cried and cried as panic completely overwhelmed me.

An elderly black man passing by came up to me and asked me what was wrong. I explained through my tears that it was my birthday and I was lost. He sat down beside me despite his very nice clothes and patted my hand and said he could help get me back to where I needed to go. He asked where I was staying, and I told him Harlem.

At that point he decided he didn't want to just send me alone up there with just directions to guide me. So not only did he walk me to the subway but he rode the subway with me from the Lower East Side all the way up to 125th St in Harlem. Then, he WALKED WITH ME straight to the front door of where I was staying, to make sure I got back safely.

Never in my life had I encountered such kindness. He took so much time out of his night to help a total stranger in distress. It was awesome. I loved New York prior to that night. But that night I fell in love with New Yorkers. I've had similar kindness from New Yorkers since then. And Parisians. And New Delhi-ans. So I know it wasn't just a random once in a lifetime experience. That experience taught me that kindness is everywhere. That you just open yourself up to it and people will no longer surprise you with kindness because it is something you know is there to begin with.

5. Coffee and a chocolate croissant - Paris

Right around the corner from the hostel I stayed at in Paris was a tiny and delightful little bakery. Every morning I would stop in at the start of my day and get a coffee and chocolate croissant. I speak essentially no French, just the few words and phrases I'd taught myself before I arrived so I wouldn't be totally at odds with what I might need to communicate. The old woman who owned the bakery spoke no English. But every day we greeted each other and smiled and showed through expressions and gestures how happy we were to see one another.

I was only in Paris for five days, and on my final day I asked the old woman what time they opened in the morning. 8, she replied. My expression dropped, and she asked what was wrong. I told her, badly and haltingly, that I was leaving the next day and my flight was in the morning so I needed to leave at 7:30 to head out to the airport.

"No problem. I open early!" She smiled hugely and patted my hand (what is it with being patted on the hand?)

And sure enough, the next morning I came in hauling my bags and she had my coffee and chocolate croissant ready for me when I arrived at 7:30. It was such a delicious way to end my stay in Paris.