Just the Facts, Madame

April 8, 2007

Despite the somewhat (okay, completely) negative view of the current U.S. Commander-in-Chief abroad, I’ve never had any problems traveling with an American passport.  Usually a simple “hey, I didn’t vote for him” is enough to earn a chuckle and some sympathy.  After all, I was the one who had to go back home to Curious George’s America.

By the time I reached Morocco, I was well-traveled and my “denial of responsibility for Bush” speech was equally well-practiced.  During my first breakfast at the Fassi Riad, I was introducing myself to the other guests when the owner’s wife joined in.  Up until this point, I wasn’t even sure if she spoke English, so you can imagine my shock when she contributed this to our little discussion.

“I know” she said in response.

I just looked at her quizzically, not really sure what she meant.

“You did not pick Double-U.  Because you are here – here in Maroc.”  She handed me another glass of mint tea.  “His supporters would never ever come to a Muslim nation has no oil.”

“Oui, oui, you are very right.” I agreed with her remarkably astute observation.

“But Maroc is a very beautiful and safe place.”  I couldn’t agree with her more, yet I was a little ashamed at the way my country’s government was perceived.


The Money Factor

April 4, 2007

There’s no denying the fact that traveling costs money, sometimes a lot.  In fact, that’s usually the number one reason why people don’t travel more.  However, it’s all about your priorities. 

First of all, I choose to prioritize travel and new experiences over other things like buying property or having tons of stuff. (besides, investing in property doesn’t exactly fit in with the nomadic lifestyle).  My philosophy about money has always been “it’s nice but you can’t take it with you”.  I’m more interested in what money can do than accumulating a bunch of it. 

So why should anyone prioritize travel?  First of all, it opens your eyes and enriches your life in ways that nothing else can.  It’s not all about laying on a beach drinking umbrella drinks (you don’t need to leave the country to do that), it’s about experiencing other cultures and learning that there’s more than one way to live.  It’s about realizing how much we all have in common, regardless of race, religion, or nationality.  As Americans, we tend to look inward and to reject, even fear outsiders.  Travel breeds open-mindedness and an ability to adapt. 

Second, travel is an investment – an investment of your time.  Life is short, and in the end what are you going to remember?  That you managed to buy a house before you turned 30 or seeing the sun rise over the Taj Mahal?  That you owned a Porsche or the people whose lives you changed by volunteering your time and skills?  He who dies with the most toys does not win at life. 

*Traveling doesn’t have to cost that much – flights are expensive, yes, and I like luxury as much as the next girl.  However, living like the locals can be much more rewarding and is almost always amazingly cheap, especially in developing nations. 

Travel in a Time of War

April 3, 2007

The bulk of my travel experience has occurred post 9-11, but even before that safety was always a concern.  Here’s a great article by author Rob Sangster on “Travel in a Time of War” that anyone who is worried danger on the road.  It also covers why you should make the effort and the time to explore.

“As a traveler, you develop a deeper understanding of the strivings of billions of humans. You realize how much of what you’d accepted as universal truth is based on only the values of the country in which you grew up. You learn tolerance or appreciation for deeply-held beliefs of others. Think about the extent to which present problems are related to isolation and to fear of and failure to understand the unknown “other.”

Freed from the cocoon of home, a traveler learns how people live in the rest of the world, what they care about. After you’ve been to Beijing, television coverage of helmeted soldiers beating students to the pavement in Tienanmen Square affects you in ways that people who haven’t been there simply cannot appreciate.”

Another great quote from “(In my book) I quote a priest who reportedly said ‘In all my years, I’ve never once heard a man on his deathbed say ‘My only regret is that I didn’t spend more time in the office.’ ‘I’ll never say that either’ says Rob.”

Creatures of the Deep

April 2, 2007

“Sure, I’ll try anything.”

I regretted the words almost as soon as they left my lips.  San Sebastian is considered by some to have the best tapas, or pintxos as they’re called locally, in Spain, and most of the bars and cafes have a fantastic assortment.  Fortunately (or not) I had found some new Basque friends to guide me through the stunning array of choices. 

San Sebastian, or Donostia, is the jewel of Spain’s Basque country.  It’s home to a spectacular beach and a pristinely beautiful old town, the Parte Vieja.  This was where I found myself, face to face with a slice of bread topped with something that resembled an overgrown snail with beady eyes and antennae.

“It’s just a prawn” one of them told me.  The prawn was looking at me. 

“I swear they’re really tasty and fresh.  It was probably was still in the water this morning.”  I looked around the bar, everyone was enjoying sea creatures on toast along with the local sweet txacoli wine and sidra (sparkling cider).  One of the perks of being right on the North Atlantic is all the seafood you can eat straight off the boat, but I’m just not used to my seafood being able to see me too.

“Do you eat the whole thing?”  I could handle the anchovies (they tasted like pure salty, pickly goodness) and the way that all the fish seemed to be served whole here (because you could cut off the head, scrape off the scales, and push the whole mess to the side).  But his beetle-like thing creeped me out, even though I knew it wasn’t much different from a cocktail shrimp.

“Here, try this one first.”  I was handed another piece of bread with a piece of something whitish on it – it looked like the yummy fresh cod that I’d had for lunch.  Once it was in my mouth, however, the pebbled texture and briney taste were unfamilar.  “What was that?” I asked once I was done chewing the slightly tough, but not altogether unpleasant pintxo.

They conferred amongst themselves, trying to figure out the English word for it.  One of the Brits in my group who’d been in San Seb for a while already spoke up.  “It’s a sea cucumber” he informed me.  I gagged a little and quickly poured some wine down my throat. 

“Really?  Like the slimy crawly things that look like huge slugs?”

“‘Fraid so.  They eat those, and just about everything that comes out of the bay here.”

“Jesus H. Christ ” I paused.  “It actually wasn’t that bad, though.  Kind of like a chewy pickle.  That prawn thing doesn’t seem so scary now.”

“Those are actually really good once you get past their looks” he said.  “Just grab it by the head and suck the rest off.”  I laughed at his double entendre as he said “Forgive me, that came out wrong.” 

The group of locals was egging me on.  Now chances are they were just having some fun with a tourist, but everyone else in the place was enjoying the creepy little critters.  So I picked up my prawn by it’s creepy little head and just went for it.

Surprisingly, the actual taste was pretty good – very similar to really good sashimi.  However, the feeling of its feelers brushing my cheeks as I chewed made me shudder and I dropped the head on my plate.  My local audience clapped and offered toasts in their native Euskera. 

“You can eat the head also” one of them said, and slurped it down. 

100 Things

April 2, 2007

Because every blogger has to have one.

1.  I think that reading and learning are essential to happiness.  People who don’t like to read should be locked in a library until they find a genre they like or an author they identify with.

2.  My list of favorite writers is too long to name, but it includes Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad is the ultimate travelogue), Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Anais Nin (yes, she was self-centered and annoyingly introspective, but absolutely brilliant at deciphering human emotion).

3.  I think that everyone should read The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.  It was written almost 2000 years ago and lays out the basic tenets of Stoicism, but it’s still valid and accessible today. 

4.  One of my very favorite things about traveling is meeting people of different backgrounds and nationalities – you never know what they have to teach you. 

5.  My biggest dream is to circle the globe and learn about as many different cultures as possible, and write book(s) about my experiences. 

6.  I love classic rock and most of the music I listen to was recorded before I was born.  In fact, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young inspired the title for this blog.

7.  Most of the writing work I get involves fashion, beauty, and entertainment.  I do like it but sometimes I get sick of enabling people to accumulate more stuff.  Seriously, does anyone really need to spend $100 on an eye cream?

8.  There are some pretty cool perks though.  Goody bags, tickets to glamorous events, and other free stuff comes to mind.  Plus I get to live the dream and write for a living. 

9.  I’m a bit of a nomad at heart.  Home is where my laptop is; currently, that is Chicago.

10.  For me it’s always the city over the country.  I grew up in Detroit and being too far away from other people makes me a little nervous.  I like the noise, the crowds, and the action.

11.  I come by my nomadic-ness honestly.  My great-grandfather had Roma (gypsy) blood and just couldn’t stay put.  He was also a bit of a fortune-teller/seer – the seventh son of the seventh son and born with the veil (the placenta, yes it’s a little gross) still on. 

12.  My other relatives aren’t nearly as exotic, except for one of my aunts.  She’s worked in the travel industry for years and has been all around the world.  I refer to her as my Auntie Mame after the movie of the same name.

13.  Like me, she has no particular favorite place she’s traveled too, just lots of places she loves.  Everywhere is interesting in its own way.  Seville, Fez, Vienna, and of course Paris will always have a special place in my heart, however. 

14.  Paris is magic, particularly to writers and artists.  There’s no other way to explain how the city of light captures our collective imaginations and draws us in. 

15.  I went to college in a city that I would never recommend to visitors unless they wanted to see a great football game.  I think that spending four years in small town Middle America increased my desire to get out and see the world.

16.  Everywhere I go, cats find me.  My favorite international feline sighting was De Poezenboot (a houseboot full of cats!) in Amsterdam.  Yes, I actually searched out a cat shelter in the Netherlands, and I have a t-shirt to prove it.

17.  Despite my sometimes bleeding-heart liberal love of animals, I do eat meat and wear leather.  I’ll even wear vintage fur (hey, it’s warm and that animal’s probably been dead for longer than you’ve been alive).

18.  Not even seeing the tanneries in Fez put me off wearing leather.  After all, they do use every part of the cows and sheep.  Besides, red meat is yummy.

19.  Speaking of food, I think eating what the locals eat, especially street food and any special dishes, is one of the best ways to get acclimated.  Cooking and culinary traditions are a huge part of any culture. 

20.  So is drinking.  From mint tea and ultra-fresh squeezed orange juice in Morocco to locally-brewed beer in Belgium, my philosophy is “if the locals drink or eat it, it’s probably good”.  Sometimes this backfires. 

21.  Case in point: eating tapas in San Sebastian, home of the very strange seafood.  If it swims, floats, or grows on rocks along the shoreline, they put it (sometimes raw, usually whole) on bread and serve it up at happy hour.  No wonder their homegrown txacoli wine is so potent.

22.  Nobody’s perfect, however.  I have been known to cave and get Diet Coke (or Coke Light) from time to time though.  That stuff is addictive.

23.  I also shop everywhere.  Not to the point of ridiculousness, but I like my souvenirs.  Some of my wardrobe’s greatest hits come from faraway lands (cashmere and silk scarves from India, embroidered purses from Hungary, etc.). 

23.  My favorite colors are ruby red, gold, and other jewel tones like sapphire blue and amethyst.  I like to think of them as the colors of royalty.  Maybe that’s why I liked Versailles so much.

24.  I actually enjoy going to museums, palaces, castles, and other historical sites.  It only goes to follow that I was one of the nerds who actually liked school.

25.  I majored in political science and English, and my liberal arts degree has proven to be very, um, useful.  Hey, I do plan to teach English as a foreign language, so I’ll be using that degree eventually.

26.  Like many liberal arts majors, I was thinking of going to law school someday.  Then I realized that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer, and accumulating massive student loans only to do something other than practice law is a little bit silly.  This awesome blog supports my reasoning wholeheartedly. 

27.  I got into writing for actual money by starting a fashion blog and my freelance work grew from there. 

28.  I have a theory of how to pack for a trip regardless of length.  It goes as follows: wear mostly black, lightweight separates made of nylon or whatever synthetics you can find that dry fast and don’t wrinkle.  Dress things up with jewelry or scarves, and do a bright colored bag.  A good pair of sunglasses and comfortable, neutral-colored shoes are your best friends.

29.  All that black has the added advantage of hiding stains (bold, busy prints accomplish the same thing) and you’re less likely to get sick of it on long trips.  Plus, it all matches. 

30.  I’m bad at remembering my camera both when traveling and in general.  It’s not that I’m a bad photographer, but I would rather focus on the moment than try to record it.  However, I do keep journals and such in order to write about things later.

31.  The other reason that I don’t take pictures is my excellent visual memory.  I can vividly picture past events, so I don’t feel the need to take pictures.  This does backfire when I want to share things with others, so I’m trying to get better about it.

32.  I really like to go to zoos.  Big cats are some of the most beautiful creatures on earth, and I can spend hours watching them.  Same goes for lots of other animals.  Granted, I’m not thrilled by the thought of wild creatures kept in cages, but for most endangered species, captivity is an unfortunate necessity for survival.

33.  I would love to trek in the Himalayas in India and Nepal, and to go to the wildlife preserves for the chance of seeing tigers in the wild. 

34.  I also want to visit Varanasi and Damascus, two of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.  It’s the sense of history, tradition, and the enormity of the past that calls to me.  Rome and Florence appeal to me for the same reasons.

35.  Another reason I want to go to Varanasi is because it’s been a religious center for thousands of years; it’s the source of so many traditions.  To quote Mark Twain: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks older than all of them put together.” (the city is also referred to as Benares or Kashi).  Also, it’s the spiritual home of Jainism – read about it, it’s a philosophy relatively unknown in the West.

36.  I think that if you take the time to learn about a place and its history the past becomes almost tangible as you explore it.  The first time I began to understand this was standing in front of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, point zero for important events since the days of the Roman Empire.

37.  Really, the list of places I would like to travel to is much too long to list – I would need much more than a hundred things.

38.  I’ve always wanted to see the world and write about it, but books like the previously mentioned Innocents Abroad (and the accompanying A Tramp Abroad) and Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad have inspired me to take action.

39.  Freya Stark and Paul Theroux are other heroes of mine.  Freya because she was incredibly fearless (she traveled to the Middle East on her own at a time when few Europeans ever went there), and Paul Theroux because of his talent at taking the reader around the world with his words.

40.  My favorite Theroux book is The Pillars of Hercules about his trip around the Mediteranean.  My own experience crossing the pillars (the Straits of Gibraltar) was memorable in a semi-stressful kind of way. 

41.  Going from the serenity of Tarifa, a laid-back beach town in southern Spain, to the chaos of Tangiers is jarring to say the least.  The second you get off the ferry, the sights, sounds, and most of all the touts battle for your attention.

42.  For those who aren’t familar with the term, touts are the rather agressive marketers and promoters for various tours and activities at best, or fake guides and scammers at worst.  They are a fact of life when traveling, especially in the 3rd world.  Instead of being annoyed by them, it’s best just to view them as part of the local scene.

43.  By the way, if you find yourself in Tarifa or the nearby beach towns, I highly recommend taking a few kite-surfing lessons.  Yes, it’s difficult and you’ll probably end up wiping out more often than not, but it’s really fun.  And the moment when you do catch a wave is definitely worth it.

44.  Another “adventure travel” type activity that I can recommend is para-gliding.  Because strapping yourself to what is essentially a big silk triangle and jumping off a mountain top is the best way to enjoy the scenery.

45.  Needless to say, I don’t have much of a fear of heights.  Or flying.

46.  In fact, I’ve never worried that much about danger when traveling, or at least not any more so than I would at home.  My advice to other woman travelers (actually, to anyone) is simple – stay alert and trust your instincts.

47.  My instincts have led me to meet a lot of great people, however.  Some of whom I still keep in touch with through email. 

48.  If you’re traveling alone, or just sick of the people you’re with, head to the local ex-pat bars (check out Lonely Planet’s forums or ask the concierge of one of the nicer hotels) or hostels (most of them have cafes or similar places) and you’ll be sure to meet friendly people. 

49.  This is also a good way to get advice on where to find great cheap food, fun places to visit, and good day trips.  Talking to fellow travelers on trains, buses, boats, etc. is another excellent idea, plus it can make a tedious trip go by more quickly.

50.  I actually do like long train rides.  I do some of my best writing and thinking while watching the world go by outside the window. 

51.  That said, if you’ve got limited time (and who doesn’t?) I’d recommend taking the night trains when you can, especially in Europe.  Think about it – you have to sleep anyways, and you don’t have to pay for a hotel that night.

52.  Even though I love to read, I still like movies and sometimes TV (I’m not one of those people who think that television is somehow beneath them).

53.  My taste in movies ranges from the slightly cheesy (musicals like Evita and Chicago)to the arty (The Opposite of Sex, Malena), to action movies (Training Day, James Bond movies).  The Indiana Jones series is possibly my very favorite, though.  I wanted to be an archaeologist for a while after I saw them for the first time when I was in third grade or so. 

54.  Then I learned that archaeology wasn’t nearly as glamorous or as exciting as Harrison Ford made it look (and male archaeologists definitely don’t all look like that).

55.  However, I do still really want to go to Petra, the site where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed (Petra was “standing in” for the lost city of Alexandria in Egypt).

56.  But I have been to Ouarzazate in Morocco, where tons of movies have been filmed, including Gladiator and Babel.  The area has a spectacular desert landscape and casbah.

57.  In spite of being a confirmed city girl, I can definitely appreciate a stunning natural landscape.  Some that stand out in my mind are the vast sands of the Sahara, the snow-covered Alps, and the many waterfalls of Yellowstone National Park.

58.  I have traveled within my home country too.  Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were particularly memorable due to the sheer natural beauty.  This family trip out west coincided with my desire to become a painter.  Yes, I mostly painted landscapes, and they are mostly mediocre.  At least I tried.

59.  I’ve always believed that it’s better to try and fail than to never try at all.  Then you’re never left wondering what could have been.

60.  Sometimes I think of this philosophy as a kind of “Rudy Scenario”.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Rudy (quick synopsis: undersized, average guy works his ass off and eventually realizes his dream by playing football for Notre Dame, and leaves with a degree), he says “if I don’t at least try to do this, I’ll never be any good to anybody”.

61.  Basically, I never want to be that guy saying “I could have been a contender”.

62.  You should be able to figure out where I went to college from the Rudy mention.  Who else besides ND grads quotes Rudy?

63.  However, I don’t consider myself Catholic, however, even though I was raised Catholic.  I don’t really have any particular religious beliefs. 

64.  Maybe this lack of defined spirituality is what draws me to places like Jerusalem, Cairo, and Cordoba, and to religious sites like mosques and cathedrals.

65.  Or maybe it’s just pure wonder at what man has created.  You have to admit some of these buildings/structures are pretty spectacular. 

66.  Since it seems that I’ve basically abandoned my plan not to list off places that I want to go, let’s add Mayan sites like Copan and Chichen Itza.  I first became interested in the Mayan civilization when I was assigned a report on it in eighth grade – the project ended up being massive because I just had so much to say on the subject.

67.  Clearly, I liked to hear myself talk and write even then.  This semi-narcissistic trait later manifested itself with my participation on the debate team and in Model United Nations.  Yes, I was a dork.

68.  Speaking of Model UN, that, combined with a few great government and history teachers, is what inspired me to study political science.  I concentrated in International Relations and wrote my thesis on the Palestine situation.  Amusingly enough, what I remember most about it is that Arafat died the day I presented it. 

69. I think From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman is an excellent primer on modern Middle Eastern history.  It’s not the most academic of texts, but it reads like a novel but with plenty of factual background.

70.  One of my earliest “reading memories” is of reading the Children’s World Book Encyclopedia and seeing a picture of a woman from Sri Lanka, wearing a lavish embroidered fuschia and red dress, and thinking “I want to see that place”. 

71.  Another one is checking out “Our World”, a big colorful atlas, from the local library yet again.  The huge book seemed so heavy and rich with knowledge then, and I remember that the sections about Turkey, Japan, and Peru were some of my favorites.

72.  I saw The King and I and Camelot around the same time, and both of those added fuel to the fire.  The King and I with the exotic images of Siam (Thailand) and the medieval castles of Camelot.

73.  I’ve been fortunate enough to actually visit a few castles in Germany – Neuschwanstein (the one that Disney’s Cinderella castle was modelled after) and Hohenschwangau.

74.  Bavaria and Austria were the first two places I went without family, and I’ll always have great memories of the beautiful historic cities combined with modern German technology.

75.  Vienna’s relaxed cafe culture (the best coffee and pastries in the world) and storied past make it a city that I could spend years exploring.  The Viennese accent also softens the normally somewhat harsh German language.

76.  If you ever find yourself there, don’t skip the Habsburg Palace and the Schonbrunn.  Take the tours, read the placards, let yourself imagine all the real life drama that played out in those rooms. 

77.  One of the few times that I didn’t follow my own advice was visiting the Louvre.  It was ridiculously crowded, so I checked out the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo along with whatever works were around them.  I can only imagine how crammed the Museum is now after The DaVinci Code.

78.  The Winged Victory of Samothrace is seriously amazing, though.  Pictures just don’t do it justice.

79.  The first art museum that I remember going to was the Detroit Institute of Arts, and all I remember from that visit is the Diego Riviera murals.  It’s a room filled with intricately detailed depictions of the auto industry that built Detroit.

80.  The Louvre was not my favorite museum in Paris (obviously), nor was the D’Orsay.  It was the Musee Rodin, with all of the artist’s work arranged in his former home, studio, and gardens.  It probably helped that I first saw it in June when all the roses were in bloom.

81.  I like to read books that take place in the city I’m currently in.  This ranges from the obvious (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in Paris) to the more obscure (Looped in Chicago).

82.  But some books are without location and therefore go with everything.  Robert Greene’s work, for example has no place or time, but it’s perfect journey reading.

83.  “Journey reading” can be defined as long, complex books that you can take on an extended trip on a plane, train, or automobile in order to stay entertained (hey, sometimes scenery alone isn’t enough). 

84.  I’d rather read than listen to music on a trip simply because I like to hear what’s going on, even if I don’t understand the language.

85.  One of the best ways to learn a new language is total immersion; my abilities with any given language increase exponentially by the number of days I spend in a location where it’s spoken.

86.  Attempting to speak the local language will generally endear you to the locals – it’s the thought that counts (even if they make fun of your accent after you leave). 

87.  This is especially useful if you’re bargaining.  Haggling is customary in markets around the world, especially developing nations.  If you’re clearly a tourist, you’ll probably still pay more than a native, but some negotiating is still expected.

88.  Don’t worry about paying a little more than the locals – that extra money almost certainly means more to them than you.  Generosity is a virtue.

89.  I can’t stand overly cheap or miserly people.  Tip your waiters well, splurge on that trip of a lifetime, and remember that you can’t take your savings with you.

90.  This goes hand in hand with the notion that if you keep waiting for the right time, you’ll never do it.  Carpe diem, people. 

91.  In case you can’t tell, I’m a little bit impatient.  I walk fast, talk fast, and read fast.

92.  That’s probably why I like places like Spain and southern France, where the pace of life is slower.  I’m forced to adapt and live according the local rhythms.  It’s relaxing. 

93.  Writing is also something I find very relaxing, whether it’s keeping a journal or penning a short story.  Next time you’re angry, sad, or frustrated, try writing it all down.  You’ll be amazed at the clarity it brings.

94.  One other way I calm my impatient tendencies is by running or taking long walks.  I find this similar to trips on the train – I get some of my best ideas this way.  Lifting weights works as well, and has resulted in me being surprisingly strong. 

95.  That last trait is pretty useful when it comes to backpacking or just lugging my stuff across the train station.  Or helping my friends move furniture.

96.  I believe that travel and getting to know people of all races, faiths, and cultures benefits everyone.  Ignorance is what leads to fear and then to hate. 

97.  Americans are definitely guilty of this kind of insular thinking.  The Brits and Aussies have it right with their gap years, walk-abouts, and round-the-world-trips.

98.  I hope to eventually inspire others to strike out and visit exotic places with my writing.  Even if it’s only one person, it would still be worth it. 

99.  One of my favorite quotes is “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read a page”.  St. Augustine wrote that. 

100.  For those of you who are into astrology, I’m a Leo (no wonder I like felines so much) with a Pisces Moon and an Aries ascendant.