Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why travel?

Angels Landing from the valley floor,
Zion National Park, Utah, USA
To people who haven't been bitten by the travel bug, the desire to fly, drive, walk or sit on a train for hours just to go look at streets, buildings, trees and people in a different city, state or country can seem baffling. Why go all that distance to spend time outside your comfort zone, around people you may not be able to understand, in a place where it may not be safe to drink the water or eat certain types of food and where you're not unlikely to get lost at least once a day? Why sit on a rattling bus overnight, or trek through bug-infested forests up to altitudes that make you light-headed? Why bother with all the hassle and headaches of traveling, when you could stay comfortably at home?

If you asked 50 travel junkies those questions, you'd likely get 50 different answers, but I'd be willing to bet that most of them wouldn't be all that different from mine, at least in spirit: Because, in getting lost, you'll stumble over people and experiences you didn't know were missing from your life. Because finding a way to communicate with people who live a world away from where you grew up shows you just how how much you have in common, despite the differences in your lifestyles and looks - and because those differences can open your eyes to new ways of doing things, or make you better appreciate your own life. Because beauty - in architecture, in nature, in people - is worth seeking out. And because nothing is more exhilarating than stepping over the edge of your comfort zone and free-falling into as-yet unknown experiences.
Les arènes: Inside the Roman amphitheatre,
Arles, France.

Travel can be terrifying. If you venture away from home often enough, there will inevitably be moments when you want nothing more than to be back where things are simple and figuring out how to interact with the people around you without offending anyone or making a mockery of yourself doesn't take every ounce of brainpower you have. You will likely get sick or hurt at inopportune moments, be scorned by locals who think you should have stayed at your home and well away from theirs, and wonder, once you're past the point of no return on some adventurous outing that required you to sign away the operator's liability for your life, what the hell you were thinking.

Those moments, however, are few and far between and almost always make you laugh at some point down the line. Most of the time, travel is wonderful. You can admire the colors in a national park and wonder just how long it took for such beauty to be carved out of the earth. You can stand at the Pont du Gard or the Roman amphitheatre in Arles and marvel at how such huge constructs have stood for so long without mortar. You can take a walk or a hike and wonder about the thousands of other feet that have been there - who they belonged to, what those people saw, their reasons for coming. You can exchange a smile with someone who was raised in a culture radically different from yours and treasure a brief conversation that you'll never forget. Or you can sit, at a café, on a park bench, on a curb, and watch the world go by, with all its similarities to and differences from the world you know.

Looking back down the path to Inis Mór's
Dún Aonghasa, toward the Irish Sea.
As long as you mind your manners and respect local customs, there's no wrong way to travel. Whatever it is that you're looking for, whatever your reasons for going, as long as you're satisfied with what you see, do and experience, you're traveling the "right" way. For some, that "right" way means setting out on an epic adventure without an end date, while for others it's a long weekend close to home or a week a short flight away.

Travel is personal, with a lot of self-discovery wrapped up in any trip, but whether you travel alone, with friends or with a group, it's also something to be shared. Each new memory you make expands your view of the world and every experience you have can be helpful to the people around you, those you already know and those you have yet to meet.

So, why travel? Pick a reason, there are hundreds. I think a more difficult question to answer is "Why not travel?" I can't think of a single answer that isn't outweighed by the benefits of travel and the discoveries it yields. Can you?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Getting Hustled in NYC

Um, I'd like to keep that in my wallet, please.
Creative Commons, TheTruthAbout
In general, I think I'm a pretty good judge of character and - essential to a traveler, especially a woman who often travels alone - I pride myself on trusting my gut. So far (knock on wood) I've been lucky enough and smart enough to avoid any trouble while traveling abroad. But my ego took a huge blow this fall when I got hustled in New York City.

I was only in New York for about 36 hours, just long enough to eat some pizza, people-watch in Times Square and along Broadway, help out at the gala event for work that was the reason I was there, grab some bagels and head back down the Turnpike to our office in Washington, DC.

When I walked into the gala venue, I was in a great mood. I hadn't been in a major city in going on three months, and I was riding the high of the energy boost I always get the moment I arrive in a city I love. I've been tele-commuting since May, so it had been a while since I'd seen my co-workers and seeing friendly faces I'd missed was another rush. I spent the evening working at the registration table, talking literature and nerve-wracking visa applications with the Polish woman working the coat check for the catering company in between checking in guests.

It was about an hour into the event when a man hurried over to the table, set down his glass of wine and asked if I had any change; he had to go pay for parking and he didn't have any small bills. I'm usually terrible at carrying cash and all I had was the single bill I had tucked into my purse, just in case. "Sorry," I said, "all I have is a $20." Talking so fast that I could barely keep up (and that's saying something: I'm from Southern California, where I grew up talking so fast that my dad would often shake his head and tell me to slow down during family dinner conversation), the man said that was fine, he was just short and needed to pay ASAP, so he'd run to the ATM on his way back from the garage to pay me back. He tossed in the name of one of my organization's board members, saying he was a friend. I was uncomfortable and wished I'd kept my mouth shut about the $20, but told myself I was being ridiculous - he was a guest who needed to borrow some cash, that was all. I pulled out the $20, handed it to him and watched him keep up the same frantic pace as he headed out the front door, tossing a "Thanks" over his shoulder.

About twenty minutes later, my gut was telling me that this guy was not coming back, and I was berating myself for breaking so many of my own rules about dealing with strangers:
  1. Listen to your instincts, not the person's appearance. The guy was wearing a suit and tie, so my brain said, "Honey, look at him, it's fine," even while my instincts were screaming "Bad news!"
  2. He used a nickname for the board member he claimed to know that I'd never heard him called by. It had the intended affect of making me think the guy just knew our board member better than I did, even while it set off alarm bells in the back of my head.
  3. When someone's talking very quickly and not quite making eye contact, they're not up to anything good. Based on this guy's behavior, I'd say that rule #1 in the Hustler's Handbook is "Never stop talking, never stop moving, or it'll give them a chance to think."
  4. Do NOT tell people that you have cash. My automatic response to people on the street who ask me, specifically, for money is "I'm sorry, I don't have any change." (Which is usually true, but that's beside the point.) This is where broken rule #1 came in, which, combined with the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of people, many of whom I knew, made me feel safe enough to confess that I didn't have what I thought he was looking for in a little too much detail.
  5. He wasn't consistent about what he wanted. First, he needed change. Then, when I didn't have change, he was short. Alarm bells clanging all over the place, and I still let myself be blinded by #1 and steam-rolled by #3.
An hour later, I was furious with myself. $20 wouldn't have bought me much, but it was enough to make a difference in my budget for the week. At the end of the event, I told my co-workers what had happened, struggling to look at it as a lesson well-learned at a time when the loss of $20 didn't leave me desperate - but it still stung. It turned out that one of the cater-waiters had also been hustled, and our bookkeeper was kind enough to reimburse both of us and consider it part of the expense of the event.

I was very grateful to have the $20 back in my purse, but was still upset with myself for being such an uncharacteristically easy mark. (And, really, at an event that costs hundreds of dollars per ticket, who hustles the event and catering staff?! Probably someone who knows that New York society is too smart to fall for their lines...) But I've learned an important lesson, with injury to nothing but my ego: even in what you consider a comfort zone, don't let your guard down completely and always trust your gut.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Secret of Life

As individual as each of us is, as much as we insist on making our own way and living our own lives, we always have preconceptions of what's "normal" based on the opinions of the people around us and the status quo as we were growing up.

College graduation, May 2007.
For me, this moment felt like
a given, but that isn't the
case for everyone.
In my hometown, an affluent beach suburb that prides itself on the quality of its schools and the achievements of its students, going to college isn't a question for most people. There, a college education is perceived by most as a necessity, a stepping stone to adulthood and a life of purpose, whatever that purpose may be. I never questioned that I would go to college, and the fact that neither marriage nor children were part of my plan until, at the very least, a few years after I had finished that bachelor's degree seemed like the most normal thing in the world.

So when I was asked last week what my "secret" is for being 25, unmarried, fairly well-traveled and about to start my graduate work, my first reaction was to blink in surprise, speechless. But I don't have a secret, I thought. Isn't that pretty normal? With the possible exception of the well-traveled part for some, I don't think my situation is all that different, on the surface, from that of a lot of 25-year-olds around the world.

Then I started to put the question into context: I'm not in an urban area anymore - in fact, I'm a three-hour drive from any major city. This part of Arizona, which my parents moved to when I was a sophomore in college, is rural, much of it is far from affluent and many of the schools struggle to get a decent percentage of their students successfully through the state-mandated testing. Some of the kids who grow up here do go on to one of the state's public colleges, but for many of the people who live here, a college degree may as well be the moon. And most people are married and starting families by their early 20s. In my seven months here so far, I haven't met or heard of anyone else my age who isn't married.

The man who asked my "secret" for living my life as I have has two young daughters, whom he wants to see get their degrees and explore the world; he and his wife are planning a family vacation overseas when they're a little older. In this area, as in a lot of the U.S., making a trip like that is a big deal and I was touched by this man's concern for his daughters' future and his desire to show them that a life that is "the norm" for this area isn't their only option.

After my initial surprise at his question, I started to think about what pushed me to study and travel as much as I could. Yes, some of my motivation for getting my degree was because it was expected, but I was genuinely interested in the subjects I chose to study and I enjoyed spending time on them, years of sleep deprivation aside. Studying abroad was something I felt compelled to do, if time and money allowed, and I don't regret a moment of it, despite the fact that it made my last year of college extremely hectic. When I started my bachelor's degree, I didn't think much about grad school, but as my interests have developed, it's become clear that the path I hope to follow into the future will be more accessible with a Masters degree - and I'm lucky enough to be able to work toward that new goal while indulging my love of travel. So it seems that having a passion for something - or several things - and the drive to pursue it is my "secret."

While the ideas of normality that each of us grow up with will never entirely fade, they don't define our lives unless we let them. (And one sure way to blow any idea of "normal" out of the water is to travel and see how different life is for people around the world.) I think Caecus got it right when he said, "Each man is the architect of his own fate." I believe that, and, though the path I'm following may be influenced by other people and may change direction, I will always be the one making the decision to change course or continue straight ahead - no one else can decide my life's direction for me. What's your secret to living the life you want?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No dreams allowed?

No dreams allowed?
(Image from Fibonnaci,
Wikimedia Commons)
Most travelers know that, while their next trip often occupies 75% or more of their brainpower, traveling isn't for everyone. Even among travel lovers, sometimes you meet people who have no interest in going to a certain type of destination - for some people, anything outside of Europe or North America isn't worth their time; for others, anything on the beaten path is a place they have no interest in visiting. Most travel lovers embrace their common ground, whether or not they share many dream destinations. But what happens when someone thinks your dreams are wrong?

I don't have a lot of patience for people who criticize the dreams of others to begin with - after all, dreams are personal and usually have nothing to do with the person disparaging them - but it can be especially frustrating when the person who wants to tell you why you're nuts is someone you care about. When someone I meet in passing thinks I'm crazy for wanting to visit Rwanda, Thailand or Antarctica, it's easy to shrug it off, smile and say "to each her own." But when people I love are adamant that I shouldn't travel to certain places, or that I shouldn't travel alone so much, it hurts on multiple levels: that they don't think I can keep myself safe, that they're more concerned about their own preconceptions about a region than they are about my desire to connect with the people and the history there, and that they're so set on talking me out of going that they won't let me share my excitement about the possibilities ahead of me.

Alone in a new city (Prague) - and loving it!
Be happy for me.
It may seem to the people who discourage me from going somewhere or doing something I'm excited about that they're only demonstrating concern for my well-being, but to me it feels like a kick in the face. Whether traveling solo or with friends, I'm not inexperienced at this, nor am I careless or cavalier about...well, anything. I'm meticulous to the point of neurosis about planning (just ask anyone who's traveled with me!) and I have good instincts that I make a point of following. Why can't they leave worrying about logistics and safety to me and be happy that I'm following my dreams?

It's even more frustrating when the criticism comes from people who love to travel themselves and are no strangers to venturing off the beaten path. I'd love to hear about their experiences in places similar to the ones I want to visit and compare notes on the best seasons to go, great local guides and foods or activities not to be missed, but instead I'm treated to a lengthy monologue about why I should avoid certain countries, cities or even entire regions of the world. I'm left to conclude that they don't think I deserve the same right to choose my own path that they've enjoyed, that they think I'm incapable of taking care of myself or that they think because I often travel solo, I'd be better off staying home.

Arguments about travel don't benefit anyone, so my new plan is this: I'm still happy to talk to anyone who will listen about my travel plans, but I'm keeping a mental list of people who really don't want to hear about my plans to venture off the beaten path (or even to explore slightly-less-well-trod sections of it). That way, I'll remember who's more interested in telling me why I shouldn't go than in being excited about my travels, and I can steer any travel-related conversation to areas and activities I know they're comfortable with. I'm happy to hear recommendations for great reefs to snorkel or dive, challenging hikes to take and beautiful beaches to explore, and I certainly don't mind someone expressing concern for me once in a while, but I'm not interested in being told repeatedly why I shouldn't go to a particular country or in having my dreams excoriated - especially by people who aren't really interested in hearing about them anyway.

So from now on, I'll be focusing on planning my adventures, sharing them with the people I care about who want to hear about them and avoiding the headache - on both sides - of arguing about specific pieces of my plans with those who don't. Knowing that list of people is necessary hurts, but it will help keep things less frustrating for everyone, and will let me keep my eye on the ball rather than being distracted by arguments that leave everyone involved distressed. And knowing that the people not on that list support my dreams - and sometimes share them! - and will be happy to get a postcard saying I'm having a great time, no matter where it's from, never fails to make me smile.

What are your tricks for dealing with people who argue with your dreams?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Visas

Creative Commons, Damian613
One thing about the French: they love their bureaucracy. Cinema passes, library cards and bus passes each require a passport-sized photo to verify, each time you use them, that you are actually the individual to whom each card was issued. Opening a checking account requires documentation proving that you live at the address you claim is your residence and, if you aren't the primary occupant of record, a letter from that person is necessary, along with documentation that they are, in fact, the primary occupant of record.

When I went to the French embassy in Washington during the summer of 2005 to obtain my student visa (for which one must apply in person), I was carrying approximately a pound of paperwork. In addition to my passport - in good condition, with at least two blank pages at the back - the requested photocopies of the appropriate pages and various other forms of official identification, I also had documentation of my enrollment at GW, documentation of my acceptance into my study abroad program, documentation from my parents that they had sufficient funds ($600/month was the minimum amount, I believe) to support me for the duration of my stay in France, proof of my flight itinerary, documentation from my study abroad program that I would have a legitimate place to live during my time in France, two passport-sized photos and a credit card for the visa application fee, although I no longer remember what it was - less than $150, possibly less than $100.

I walked out ninety minutes or so later, the proud bearer of a pretty French short-stay visa that took up a full page in my passport. I was a little confused as to why I had been issued a short-stay visa, since I was going to be in the country for approximately eight months, which did not, in fact, qualify as "short," but I was confident that someone would explain it to me before it expired on October 30th.

Official logo of the French Republic,
via Wikimedia Commons
Among the handful of students in my program planning to stay in France for a full year of study, rumors circulated about what was involved in securing a titre de séjour (long-stay visa). We determined that some type of medical visit was involved, and were assured that we would receive official notification of what was required and when. Sure enough, in late October, I received a letter notifying me of a medical visit in Marseille in November. I was assured that my fears of being deported because my short-stay visa actually expired at the end of October were groundless.

I made my way to the appointed office at the appropriate time on the designated day and moved from one waiting area to the next with several of my fellow students and a lot of people who looked like they were probably trying to renew their permanent resident status. My eyes were checked, my weight noted. (I can confirm that French women really don't get fat: after two months of feeling like I was consuming more food than I'd ever eaten in my life, it turned out I'd lost ten pounds.)

I was escorted to another waiting area, then called into one of three small cubicles built into one wall of the room. A woman explained that I was to remove all clothing and any jewelry from the waist up and wait to be called again for my spine x-ray, then left me to my own devices in the cubicle. I took a deep breath and expelled it - what was becoming my standard method for dealing with situations my self-conscious American brain found dauntingly immodest - then hung my clothes on the hooks provided and stashed my jewelry in my pockets. My name was called from the side of the cubicle opposite the one I'd entered - by a man's voice. I rolled my eyes at myself, took another deep breath and let it out as I stepped into the x-ray room. The doctor, or x-ray technician, or whatever he was, was relatively young and reached out to shake my hand with a smile. I bit the tip of my tongue to keep the slightly hysterical laughter in my head at bay and managed a polite greeting. Five minutes later, I was safely back in my sweater and headed back to the bus station.

Once my x-ray had been declared to show I was healthy (I assume they were looking for evidence of tuberculosis in my lungs), I was instructed to proceed to a government office, conveniently in Aix-en-Provence this time, to secure my visa. The man at the little office window on the street took my paperwork and passport, handed the passport back half a minute later, indicated I was to sign the long-stay visa, stamped and initialed it and waved me on my way with hardly a word. Despite the fact that it was November, my new visa - another colorful full-page seal - was dated October 1st, and gave me leave to stay in France through September 30th of the following year. I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be done with the process.

Australian Coat of Arms;
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Obtaining my student visa for Australia was a completely different experience.

I first tried to apply this past July, wanting to get the AUS$515 payment out of the way as quickly as possible, before my credit card got too bogged down with all the other necessities of my move. I filled out the application - online, no consulate visit necessary! - but came up with an error message when I submitted it, since I was more than four months away from my projected arrival date. Oops.

I shied away from applying in late October, when I was within four months of my departure for Australia, because the exchange rate was awful for the U.S. dollar. I finally bit the bullet on Thanksgiving - last Thursday - because the Aussie had dropped back below USD$1 and I didn't want to delay too long, in case there was a problem. I provided my background information and eCoE (electronic confirmation of enrolment), certified that I'm generally a good, law-abiding person and cringed as I hit "submit" to authorize the AUS$550 charge to my credit card (apparently the cost of a student visa increased some time between July and November).

On November 26th, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up to an email advising me that my visa had been approved, effective immediately, and that I was welcome to stay in Australia until three months after the end of my degree program. I blinked, and read it again. That was easy. Not only am I set, visa-wise, for the duration of my Masters program, but I have permission to work as soon as my classes begin in February. I don't even have to use a page of my passport, since my visa is stored online.

In summary: French student visas are pretty and cheap compared to the Australian equivalent, but Australian student visas are a better deal all around. They're significantly more expensive but allow you to work 20 hours a week while school is in session and as many hours per week as you like during school breaks, while you can't work at all on a student visa in France; you don't have to trek to the nearest consulate, as you do for a French visa; and the first visa you get for Australia is the only one you need for the duration of your studies, while France requires some hopping around in-country, after your studies have begun, before guaranteeing you can stay. My credit card is still whimpering, but the ease of the application process for my Australian student visa and the prospect of being able to work down under are going a long way toward keeping me optimistic about the whole process.

Look out, Australia, I'll be there in two months!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Get Lost in the Crowd

Call me crazy, but I love crowds. Not the shoulder-to-shoulder, shuffling-an-inch-at-a-time, can't-breathe-without-inhaling-your-neighbor's-hair kind of crowd, but the kind you find in most big cities, that pulses with the energy of everyone in it, pushes you to walk a little faster and says "Okay, what are we going to do today?"

That energy is one of the first things I notice about a city and, if one doesn't have a distinct feeling all its own, it's a good indication that I'm probably not going to like it much - not a problem for London, the location of this week's Saturday Snapshot.

This photo was taken from the steps of The National Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square, in late October 2005, when I was visiting London with a friend during the second half of our October break. We were only there for a few days and had slightly different to-see lists, so we decided to spend most of this day separately. Predictably, I spent a lot of it wandering the city streets, soaking up the atmosphere. After two months in relatively small Aix-en-Provence, being back in the rush and bustle of a large capital city with crowds of people on the streets felt like being a kid in a candy store. Everywhere I looked, there were interesting things to see: people, stores, taxis, landmarks, other tourists.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached Trafalgar Square and I was starting to drag a little, probably because I'm prone to forgetting lunch when I'm exploring a new place. I wandered through the square, then joined the crowd on the steps of the museum and just sat for a while, people-watching and snapping photos, happy to be part of the crowd.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Disparate Arrivals

Creative Commons, Phillip Capper
When I arrived at Marseille-Provence Airport to begin my immersive, year-long study abroad program, I had been in airports and on planes for something like 20 hours. I was tired from a sleepless Transatlantic flight and disoriented by the heat, since it hadn't occurred to me that, yes, the Mediterranean is rather warm in early September. I was reminding myself that this was it, I was in France and I'd signed a piece of paper saying I would speak French 100% of the time while I was there. (What's the word for 'luggage carousel?' I wondered as I stared at it, waiting for my bags. What about 'luggage cart?' I don't know anything!) And I was nervously repeating the introduction I'd rehearsed in my head, for after I had (hopefully) found my host mother, whose name and address I knew, but of whom I'd never seen a photo: Bonjour, je m'appelle Jessalyn. J'ai trop de bagages, je sais, je suis désolée. Because "Hello, my name is Jessalyn. I have too much luggage, I know, I'm sorry," is obviously the standard greeting for a stranger you're going to be living with for the best part of a year.

Fortunately, my host mom, Madame C., had been given a photo and spotted me as soon as I stepped out of the baggage claim area. I saw a thinly built, middle-aged redhead jumping up and down, waving a sign with my name on it and gulped as I made my way over, launching into my introduction. Madame C.'s first reaction, after greeting me with les bises (the traditional kiss on each cheek), was to exclaim at how well I spoke. Before I could protest that no, really, I was just a passable mimic with a good ear for accents, she had moved on to exclaiming about my luggage.

After a brief misunderstanding about how long I was staying and lots of internal panicking on my part, we were in the car and on our way, with me trying desperately to keep up with the historical facts about the area and tidbits of current events Madame C. tossed out. I fully understood maybe one sentence in three, but Madame C. seemed happy to relieve me of any need to speak during the drive, and I was grateful for the chance to gather my thoughts and look around.

I had half an hour or so to myself to unpack, and then it was time to tackle dinner. Madame C.'s cheerful questions about my background flustered me, but I did my best. Telling her that my dad was an engineer was easy enough, but explaining that my mom did both health and safety and development work for a national non-profit was a bit beyond the scope of my vocabulary. I settled for a convoluted explanation that her work helped support the doctors at a medical research facility in a roundabout way, and Madame C. happily took control of the conversation again while I tried to figure out how to swallow the plateful of tomates provençales in front of me, given that cooked tomatoes were high on my Foods I Do Not Eat Because They Make Me Gag list.

I fell into bed before nine o'clock, exhausted and faintly nauseated from forcing down three whole tomatoes.

Four months later, I couldn't keep a grin from spreading over my face as I power-walked through Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, heading from customs to the gate for the short flight to Marseille. That trip was closer to 30 hours than 20, thanks to a three-hour drive to the airport and a four-hour delay in Atlanta, but despite the exhaustion that made my arms feel like lead, saying Bonjour to the customs agent and hearing the PA system announcements in French felt like coming home.

I dashed out of the arrivals hall at Marseille-Provence just in time to catch the bus to Aix. Madame C. picked me up and we went to Sunday lunch at her daughter's house, where a spring semester American student had just arrived the day before. I recognized the dazed look on her face and the pauses in conversation as she tried to find the right words in her head. Don't worry; trust me, it gets easier, I told her as I took several tomates provençales, now one of my favorite dishes, from the platter being passed.

Arrivals in new places can be overwhelming, from struggles with the local language to disorientation from a long trip to cultural and culinary differences between you and the local people. But it's amazing, between an arrival and a departure or from one arrival to the next, how quickly a place where you thought you'd never fit in can start to feel like home.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Mexican Mishap Hat Trick

By Tanenhaus, Creative Commons
You know the saying that bad things come in threes? Well, apparently travel experiences aren't exempt. I've been pretty lucky in my wanderings to date and I sincerely hope my general pattern of positive travel experiences continues, but my first trip south of the border was an exception.

I was 12, and my parents wanted to take me somewhere I could learn to snorkel during my elementary school's spring break. They'd been to various parts of Mexico with my brother years before and had enjoyed it, so they thought, "Why not Baja?" And, not being the parents of a college student at the time, they decided San José del Cabo, next to Cabo San Lucas, was the perfect spot. I was thrilled. I'd been to Canada, but we'd always driven, so this would be my first international flight.

We took something like Super Shuttle from Los Cabos International Airport to our hotel the morning we arrived. My parents exchanged an uneasy look as the shuttle picked up three college students, probably 18 or 19 years old, each with a beer already in hand, who were also staying in San José del Cabo. I was trying desperately to look older than 12 and more worldly than I was, but I still felt my mom's what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into alarm start to go off in the seat next to mine.

The next day or two passed fairly uneventfully. We drove around the area in our beat-up VW bug rental car, which I loved for its sunroof (without a pane of glass, so it couldn't be closed) and the fact that the backseat didn't have seat belts, so I was free to stretch out across it and read or watch the scenery fly by. My first snorkeling lesson passed without incident. My parents were still uneasy about the fact that they had clearly picked a spring break party destination for college kids, but San José del Cabo was quieter than Cabo San Lucas, so we didn't lose any sleep. I was disappointed that the men in the market wanted my American money more than the pesos I was so eager to spend, but I found a pretty silver and mother-of-pearl bracelet, so I was mostly appeased.

We decided to go out to El Arco de Cabo San Lucas (Lands End), which my dad wanted to see, so we joined a group of fellow tourists on a water taxi and sped across the bay. When the taxi driver ran the boat halfway aground and started yelling "Jump! Jump!" as we arrived at Lands End, I had to stifle a laugh. People "disembarked" over the sides until the waves started carrying us back out to sea, at which point the driver yelled "Stop! Stop!" until he could run the boat aground again and repeat the process.

My parents and I took our turn the second time the driver ran the boat aground. My parents went off one side, one after the other, and I chose to jump off the less crowded bow of the boat. As I landed, I heard my mom cry out and turned to go to her, but my leg was stuck. The bow rope had been hanging loosely from the underside of the bow and I had put my leg straight through one of the loops as I jumped. Struggling to hold the rope still enough in the waves to get my leg out of it, I saw my dad reach my mom and take her pack as he started to help her out of the water - she had twisted her ankle as she landed - neither of them aware that I wasn't already up on the beach.

Still stuck in the rope, I felt myself being dragged further into the water as the boat started to drift away from the beach again. The bow was too high for anyone in the boat to see me, and the steep angle of the rope from the bow to the water was making it difficult to pull my leg free. One of the other passengers, half of a couple on vacation, saw me and ran over to help, shouting at the driver. The driver didn't hear him over the water (but my parents did, and headed toward us), but someone else to hold the rope steady while I pulled my leg out of the loop was all I needed and I was free before the boat drifted much further.

After thanking our fellow passenger, my parents and I made our way up onto the beach, my mom and I hobbling, and sat down on some boulders away from the water's edge. The wind had picked up and was blowing sand into the rope burn on the back of my knee as I tried to inspect it. I heard a shout and looked up just in time to see someone's beach umbrella, freed by the wind, flying toward us. It looked like it would go over our heads, but it hit a pocket of air, bounced and smacked my dad in the face instead. We sat there, staring at each other. In the space of ten minutes, we'd gone from perfectly healthy to having a sprained ankle, a nasty rope burn and a bleeding fat lip, one unpleasant injury for each of us.

There are other places in Mexico I'd like to visit, but I don't think I'll be going back to Cabo anytime in the next 60 years. I'd really rather not give Baja a chance to repeat its hat trick of injuries; I still have the scar from the last one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Perfection Provençale

I miss Provence at any number of random moments, but a lot of them seem to hit in November. I think it has something to do with the crisp, clear fall air in the French countryside and the excitement of the winter holidays that starts to creep into the marchés, even before the Christmas markets open.

Back from the October school break, families go for evening walks, bundled up against the autumn chill in the air, and cafés turn on outdoor heaters to let their patrons continue the unofficial national pastime of people-watching.

This photo was taken just outside the town of Lourmarin, in the Luberon region, in November 2005. The Luberon is further inland than Aix-en-Provence, and is home to some of the things we consider distinctly provençal: olive groves and lavender fields, not to mention beautiful skies and charming villages. And, because I couldn’t pick just one photo of that perfect, if chilly, fall day, here’s another – this one of a cottage so picturesquely charming I actually laughed when I saw it. If I lived there, I’d curl up in one of the windows with a book, watching the world go by as my garden prepared itself for winter.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How did I get here?

What lies ahead?

Tracing back the paths you've taken (or onto which life has shoved you) to see how, exactly, you've arrived at your current destination can be an interesting and eye-opening process. What might have happened if you hadn't taken that job? Where might you be now if your parents hadn't moved when you were a kid?

Sitting on the floor in the middle of my bedroom, with guidebooks, the travel stories of others, maps and lists spread out around me, it's interesting to think about how I wound up here, planning for a two-year graduate program in Australia and all the travel I can fit in during study breaks.

It was reading Srini Rao's post on The Skool of Life yesterday, "How I ended up with The Greatest Job In the World," that got me thinking about all of this. Here I am, in my sixth month of living with my parents, more than five years after accepting that I'd never live under their roof again. And I'm enjoying it! I like living in a house again, rather than an apartment, I like being able to look outside and see trees and birds, rather than city streets, and I love being able to spend so much time with my parents before I head off to the other side of the world. And, thanks to the internet and the ability to tele-commute, I'm still at the same full-time job I've had for the past three years, so I don't feel like I'm taking advantage of my parents' generosity.

But it was an entirely random amalgam of discussions, decisions and dissension that brought me here, and I so easily could have missed the chance for this adventure. Here are just a handful of the twists and turns that have brought me to this point:
  • My parents moved from Florida, where I was born, to Southern California when I was still a baby. If I hadn't grown up in SoCal and decided that I wanted to experience something beyond the beach bubble, I might never have become interested in international issues and I might have headed to California, instead of away, for college.
  • My sophomore year of high school, I was torn between two summer programs, one at Northwestern and one at Georgetown. It was while at Georgetown that I stumbled (literally) onto GW's campus, which led to its becoming my alma mater. If I'd picked the Northwestern program, I might never have applied to GW and I'd probably have majored in psychology at Bucknell. (Which might have meant not studying abroad, and never discovering my passion for translation.)
  • It wasn't until I got into a relationship with a guy considering law school that I started thinking seriously about going to grad school just a few years after college. And the fact that he was considering Stanford and called northern California home made me quick to put the translation and interpretation (T & I) program in Monterey on my list. When we broke up, the program was still at the top of my list, but being in California suddenly wasn't quite so important anymore.
  • One evening in 2007, I uncharacteristically went to the awful, rundown gym in the first building I lived in after college and had a conversation with a woman who'd run her first marathon the year before. Eight months later, I was training for my first marathon and now, more than three years after that conversation and having completed six marathons of my own, I'm much more in tune with my own strength - physical and emotional - and am more willing than ever before to embrace my sense of adventure.
  • I applied for a Fulbright scholarship - and didn't get it. If I had, grad school would have been pushed back and, since the scholarship I applied for would have taken me to France, might have ended up being in Europe.
  • I did a random search for graduate T & I programs and came across one in Australia. Mostly joking, I sent the link to a friend. He was the one who found the dual Masters program I'm starting in February (T & I, plus international relations) by digging a little deeper on the school's site, and kept after me to apply until I gave in, did the math and figured out that it would actually be less expensive - and infinitely more fun - than the program I was planning to attend in Monterey.
There are countless things we do - every year, every month, every day - that influence, on some level, the places we end up in the future and the courses our lives take. I know there are other directions my life could have gone that would have made me happy. But right now? I'm thrilled that this path is the one my life has taken. And I can't wait to see where it leads me next.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tales from a Hostel Bunk: Prague

I walked into the four-bed room and frowned. Nothing had changed since I'd swung back to the hostel to drop a few things off mid-afternoon: there was still only one bed other than mine occupied, and the things on it still didn't look the least bit feminine. Coed dorm rooms, as long as they were small, weren't so bad, but me and just one guy, in a room at the end of the hall? That was a little weird, and potentially creepy.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague's Old Town Square,
a 10-minute walk from my hostel and one of my
favorite parts of the city.
My roommate of the night before, a very sweet British-American woman a few years older than I was who had been teaching English in the Czech countryside for two years, had left to catch a flight before dawn. The pair of American guys, also on spring break, with whom I'd shared a van from the airport to the city center the day before and who had turned up at my hostel after realizing the one they'd booked was a disaster, were apparently already out for the evening. Since breakfast had revealed the other occupants of Apple Hostel to be mostly quiet pairs who didn't make eye contact, I wondered what other solo traveler had shown up. And hoped he was short, with less muscle mass than your average 12-year-old.

Don't get me wrong, meeting other travelers is the best part of staying in a hostel, but the idea of sleeping in a room with an unknown man and no one else had my internal solo female traveler alarm clanging a warning. I try to stay in female-only rooms whenever possible, but Apple Hostel didn't have any rooms designated as such for the time I was there.
My first full day in Prague, during the boat portion
 of a walking/boat tour of the city center, with Karlův Most,
Malá Strana and the Hrad behind me.

A key turned in the lock while I was contemplating putting my shoes back on to head out for an hour at a café before dinner, and I bargained with myself: if he set off any "creepy guy" signals in my head, I'd ask about switching to another room, but it was unfair to judge a fellow traveler without even exchanging a few words of conversation. I took a deep breath and fixed a cautious smile on my face as the door opened.

Rather than short and frail, my new roommate turned out to be a tall German with a proclivity for skiing, mountain climbing and hiking. Oops. But he also seemed to tune in quickly to the fact that I wasn't entirely comfortable and set about making casual conversation. We discovered common interests in our mutual love of the outdoors and languages (although his near-native English was light-years beyond my limited German), and spent a pleasant hour talking about places we'd been and others we hoped to visit. We didn't spend much time together during the few overlapping days of our respective stays, but he was a pleasant roommate and seemed careful to respect my personal space and to avoid doing anything that might make me nervous, which I greatly appreciated.

I loved all the colors used in Prague's architecture, like on
these buildings, seen through an arch of Karlův Most.
I can't say the experience made me any less wary of sharing a room with a solo traveler of the opposite sex, and I still look first for female-only rooms when I'm traveling alone. But sharing a room with a solo male traveler who turned out to be one of the most respectful, polite and easy-going guys I've ever met was a good reminder that, while it pays to be on your guard when traveling - solo or otherwise - you never know who you'll meet or what interesting conversations you might have if you give the people around you a chance.

(For those curious about Apple Hostel itself, it's a decent-enough hostel within walking distance of both Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square. The rooms are clean and spacious; the only thing that made me a little nervous was that the top bunks didn't have rails around them or anything to keep people sleeping there from falling out. The breakfasts provided when I was there were fairly stale and I preferred to seek out my own. The communal bathrooms were kept in decent shape, although the showers were slow to drain and the shower setup will give Americans pause: three beach-style shower heads along one wall of the shower room, with no dividers between them or between that section of the room and the sinks. I'd stay there again because of the location, but if I found something in the same price range that seemed nicer or more welcoming, I wouldn't hesitate to try that instead.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Wandering Waterways

I've always had a thing about water. Whether it stems from the soothing sound, having grown up by the ocean or maybe being born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces, I have no idea, but it's a good bet that, if there's a body of water around, I'm near it (or in it, depending on the season).

One of my favorite ways to find my bearings in a new city or collect my thoughts in a familiar one is to wander through it on foot, usually by the river - the fact that large cities are usually settled on or near one has become one of my favorite things about them. The Seine is an integral part of the path I always walk through Paris shortly after I arrive; when I needed to get off campus in college, I walked along the Potomac; my favorite running trail in DC after college paralleled that same river; I got lost multiple times in Prague, but as soon as I found the Vltava I knew where I was; I can't get enough of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The list goes on, much the same for nearly every city I've been to.

Today's photo was taken in London at about this time of year in 2005, when a friend and I decided to take the Chunnel up from France during our fall break. I had expected that, after speaking nothing but French for two months, speaking English would be a relief. Instead, I found myself confused by the unfamiliar accents and struggling to figure out a lexicon that wasn't quite the same as the one I was used to. I felt sluggish and stupid every time I had to ask someone to repeat himself, which was often. After buying tickets for a museum or ordering food in a restaurant, switching back to French to speak with my friend was a relief.

Linguistic difficulties aside, I felt comfortable in London the moment I set foot in it (as long as I wasn't required to speak, at any rate). Something in the air, something about the pace of life there, reminded me so much of Washington that it was impossible not to feel at home. And the moment I set eyes on the Thames, London went from being a nice, mostly comfortable place to be to a city I loved. I took a ridiculous number of photos looking over the Thames, of bridges crossing the Thames, of double-decker buses on bridges crossing the Thames...fully half of my pictures of London, like this one, involve the river.

I spent hours on the catwalks of Tower Bridge, watching the river and the city speeding past on its banks. I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of the Thames, watching buskers and tourists alike. One of the first places I took my parents when we all went to London several months later was across the Wibbly-Wobbly Bridge (the Millenium Bridge, if we're being precise), to look at the river. Despite the fact that I was across a continent and an ocean from the place I considered home, I looked at the Thames and thought that - at that moment - there was nowhere I'd rather be.

So if we ever happen to be traveling together and I wander off, listen for the sound of waves crashing, water lapping or a river running, then follow it, and you'll almost certainly find me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Antonio

Creative Commons, guillenperez
The walls of the buildings around the piazza diffused the afternoon sunlight so that it flowed over the cobblestones, gilding them with that spectrum of light that is so uniquely Tuscan. The sun's rays spilled over my skirt, drawing me into the picture-perfect Florentine afternoon as though I belonged there.

I smiled to myself as I wrote my postcards, pausing often to look around the piazza and bask in the October sunshine, happy just to sit and enjoy the afternoon while my friends explored a museum I hadn't had energy left to gear myself up for after spending hours at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Galleria dell'Accademia.

An elderly gentleman walked into the square and took the seat adjacent to mine on the circular bench where I was writing. After several moments, he spoke and, since I was the only one around, I looked up and said "Scusa?" He repeated himself, gesturing toward me, then tapping his left arm. I caught the word sinistra and assumed he was commenting on the fact that I was left-handed, so I nodded. My limited Italian didn't offer any clues about his next statement, so I shook my head and said, "Non parlo italiano, signore, scusami." He grimaced, nodded and went back to watching the few people wandering through the piazza. Two or three minutes later, I saw the man turn back toward me out of the corner of my eye and heard, "Parlez-vous français, mademoiselle ?" I turned toward him, grinning, and said, "Oui !"

We spoke about trips he'd taken to France, how I was enjoying my second visit to Florence and how much I had loved San Gimignano on a trip a few years before. When I mentioned that I was actually American, not French, he told me he thought it was wonderful that I was taking advantage of my youth by traveling. It's impossible not to learn something new about life when we travel, he told me, and learning about life is how we come to know ourselves and the people around us. As he got up to leave, he took my hand in a warm, strong grasp that reminded me of my grandfather's and asked my name. "Enchanté, Jessalyn," he said, "Je m'appelle Antonio."

I spoke with Antonio for no more than ten minutes on that afternoon in Florence, and our paths haven't crossed since. I don't know what made him think to ask if I spoke French - if he saw the postcard to my French host mother, or if it was just a hunch. But the truth of what he said has stayed with me and, whenever I think of Florence, the first thing that comes to mind is a man named Antonio and the advice he gave me on a sunny October afternoon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

By Brian Solis (b_d_solis), via Creative Commons
The first time I went to New York City, I hated it.

Well, maybe that's a little strong: I was completely overwhelmed by it. I grew up in a laid-back beach suburb of Los Angeles where the surfers far outnumbered the taxis and the tallest building was the water tower. I'd been to Paris, Florence and Washington, DC but none of them had prepared me for the sheer energy of NYC. Whereas Washington carries a feeling that something's in the wind, that you shouldn't underestimate what you can accomplish, New York is in your face, electric and somehow determined. New York isn't hoping it can do something big; it knows it's going to.

I enjoyed parts of my first trip to New York - visits with my family in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the American Museum of Natural History, glimpses of Central Park - but the main reason I was there, as a rising high school senior, was to look at NYU. The information session was crowded and impersonal and, despite the school's impressive programs, nothing about it spoke to me. Thinking about the crush of people outside and the few school flags I'd seen flying from halfway up tall buildings, I didn't see how the students could connect with one another in such a maze. Did person-to-person interactions all take place nine stories above the sidewalk? I didn't stay for the campus tour.

My next trip to New York was five years later, after I'd gone to college in Washington, studied abroad and generally become much more comfortable with city life. That time, I couldn't drink in the atmosphere fast enough.

I strolled across the Upper West Side, people-watching and browsing street art. I explored the exhibits at the Met and wandered through Central Park. I stopped to watch rollerbladers put on a demonstration and made my way to H & H (after searching through half a dozen books in the Met's bookstore for the address) to sample a bagel.

In the past three years, I've spent more time in the Big Apple than 17-year-old me ever dreamed I'd want to - a week, a weekend, sometimes just a day - and every time I leave, I wish I had just a few more hours. I love the crush of Times Square, the sidewalks overflowing with people and stuff for sale in Chelsea and the fact that I can walk as fast as my legs will carry me throughout the city and no one will look at me like I'm crazy (which is not the case in the South Bay, where the California stroll is king). I've eaten enough New York pizza and pasta to feed a large Italian family for a month, wandered Rockefeller Center after dark, sipped frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3 and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan, eavesdropping on conversations in a myriad of languages.

Rather than overwhelm me and make me want nothing more than to crawl into bed, preferably in a dark, sound-proofed room, New York's hustle and bustle has become infectious, making me want to dive into the thick of things and fully experience all the city has to offer. It's a city where everyone jockeys for their piece of the action and diversity is celebrated, not seen as an oddity. In a world that all too often looks for homogeneity, New York is a bright flash of individualism, to the nth degree, that can capture anyone's imagination - you just have to find the right angle.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Pathway to Somewhere

I've run casually off and on for much of my life but, in the past few years, running has become an integral part of who I am. I run when I'm traveling, I travel to races, I run when I'm feeling great and when I'm sulking. Running is my yoga (which I don't do, because I usually can't keep my mind quiet enough to properly appreciate it): it centers me, keeps my muscles in tune and makes me feel good, inside and out. And I like knowing that what happens on a run - where I go, how far I go, how fast I move - is up to me.

Today's photo is a pretty good representation of all of that: a path, pleasantly sunny but shaded by the trees overhead, curving off into the distance. It's empty, but comfortably so, and the curve ahead opens up endless possibilities of what lies beyond. It was taken south of Alexandria in Northern Virginia this May, just a few days before I moved to Arizona after six years in the Washington, DC area (with a year in France between years two and three).

The path is part of the Mt. Vernon Trail, which follows the Virginia side of the Potomac River from Theodore Roosevelt Island/Rosslyn all the way down to Mt. Vernon, George Washington's historic estate. I've run more than 1,000 miles on that trail, pounding out frustrations, heartache and fear or bounding along with happiness, peace or laughter in my thoughts, depending on the day. I know its turns, hills and bumps like the back of my hand, but the scenery is never quite the same from one day to the next. This particular day was beautiful - spring, just hinting at summer, with a warm wind blowing upriver.

I didn't go much further than the curve up ahead that day, but this photo perfectly captures the feel of the trail and running itself for me: a place I can go, a thing I can do, whatever my mood, that lets me clear my head and can take me somewhere familiar or somewhere new - it's up to me. Travel is like that, too. And when I get stressed out about what to pack or where to go or what I'm going to do once I get there, I can pull this image into my head and remember that whatever's around the bend, chances are, it's going to be beautiful.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bug Called Bilingualism

By Man vyi, via Wikimedia Commons
It starts innocently enough: a desire to communicate, to be polite, that drives you to learn the basics of a language. As you spend time with the people who speak that language, it creeps a little further into your system: a longing to understand the whys and hows, the history - to know not just the words, but the nuance behind them. Then you find yourself stopping in the middle of a foreign street, uncertain of the words flowing through your own head, and it hits you: you're bilingual.

The symptoms of bilingualism manifest slowly, and often go completely unnoticed until you're living in another place, steeped in its language and the cultural patterns that come with it 24 hours a day. The progression, once you know the basics of a language and are immersed in it, goes something like this:
  1. You feel excited but overwhelmed by all of the new auditory and visual input flowing into your brain: at markets, in stores, in restaurants - anywhere you interact with locals. You make use of the basic vocabulary you've built up, occasionally stumbling or forgetting a word. You're exhausted by dinnertime every day from working so hard to keep up and communicate; you sleep a lot.
  2. Your bilingual dictionary is your new best friend. You rush to it when you get home to look up the half dozen words you really could have used on that coffee date, read the newspaper with it open on the table beside you and reach for it at random moments to look up a word you've just realized you might need. You battle occasional bouts of uncharacteristic shyness when speaking, terrified of choosing the wrong word or saying something that makes you sound ridiculous.
  3. Your speech becomes less stilted, you lose the excruciating self-consciousness that used to plague you when making casual conversation and you occasionally hear yourself using words you had no idea you knew. You cautiously expand your reading material and, though you still look up words for their precise definition, the context gives you the general idea and you rely less heavily on the dictionary. When traveling to nearby countries where you know just enough of the language to get around, you often find yourself tongue-tied, struggling to get the words of the third language past the second language that wants to be center-stage in your head and on your lips. You worry that the locals who speak the third language are going to think you're incapable of human speech.
  4. You start to make an occasional joke that the locals actually find funny for its content, not your pronunciation or word choice, and don't have trouble understanding common idioms, though the more obscure ones may still throw you off. You no longer have to concentrate so hard to catch every word that's spoken to you and it's been a while since you've had to ask someone to repeat what he said. When you talk to people at home, you pull literal translations of phrases you commonly use in the other language into your native speech patterns. This sometimes results in your friends asking why "bizarre" or "super" is suddenly your favorite word.
  5. You dream in the local language. This sometimes begins with a few sentences here and there in the dream and sometimes starts with a full-blown, detailed dream entirely in the second language. When the latter is the case, depending on how immersed in the language you've been, it may take a while for you to realize the dream wasn't in your native language. You're comfortable with the local language, and kind of smug about it.
  6. You fall into the linguistic "black hole." You're speaking normally and, all of a sudden, your mind goes completely blank and refuses to come up with the next word you want - in either language. This happens with alarming frequency for a while, making you wonder if trying to master another language has the side effect of slowly erasing your brain's capacity for rational thought and, if so, why no one told you.
  7. You're going about business as usual one day, thinking your thoughts, when you suddenly realize you don't know what language they're in. You stop in your tracks, wondering how it's possible you can't figure out what's going on inside your own head, when it hits you: who cares if there's something wrong with your brain? You're fluent in another language!
Bilingualism isn't something that goes away: variations on the later symptoms in the progression will continue to manifest throughout your life, punctuated by extreme excitement if you get to use your second language after not having had the opportunity for a while. With this comes a continuing interest in the society you lived in and a frustrated annoyance with other foreigners who discuss or write about it and "get it wrong." Occasional dreams in the language continue, sometimes seemingly out of the blue, and every now and then, when speaking your native language, all you can think of for the concept you're trying to talk about is the vocabulary for it in your second language.

Bilingualism is a bug you can live with. Some of the symptoms may be exhausting, disorienting and embarrassment inducing, but you learn to embrace them. They're merit badges - evidence that you look at the world and the life you live in it through multiple lenses, creating your own unique worldview that's informed and influenced by the cultures and the people you've spent time with and the languages that share space in your head. I'm bilingual, and I love every minute of it.

(WARNING: Contracting bilingualism may make you more susceptible to, or encourage a desire to experience, multilingualism. N.B. People whose native language is not English are often not nearly as excited by the idea of bilingualism as you think they should be, since many of them grew up with the idea that bilingualism was a necessary part of modern life, rather than an adventure to be savored. These people have also often mastered an intimidating number of languages and local dialects. It's perfectly acceptable to be in awe of them.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: les remparts de Carcassonne

This is one of my favorite photos from my year in France, despite the fact that it was taken with my very first digital camera, a clunky, low-megapixel, high-battery consumption HP that some of my friends not-so-fondly dubbed "the brick." It was taken when my parents came to visit for my birthday and we drove around southwestern France playing tourist for a few days.

I'd been to Carcassonne several years before but on a gray, dreary day that did nothing to enliven the walled city's ubiquitous stone. This time, however, we had spectacular weather. It was mid-February, but the daytime temperatures hovered around 10 degrees (low 50s, Fahrenheit). And just look at that sky!

Inside the walls, Carcassonne is fairly kitschy, although the tours are excellent and give an interesting history, along with views like this one from the battlements. And despite the plethora of swords and other souvenirs you don't need, being able to walk through a fully restored, fortified medieval city is a neat experience, especially when you consider that the area has been continuously settled since 3500 B.C.E. That's a lot of history under your feet!

We enjoyed soaking up the rare February sun while walking the nearly two miles of battlements - and caved to some of the lovely Provençal fabrics in one of the many gift shops. All in all, a city (and cultural UNESCO World Heritage site) worth visiting, if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Blogging for Clean Water

Most travelers are used to conducting at least some parts of their lives non-traditionally. In exchange for giving up a permanent place of residence, taking a career break, living out of a suitcase or a backpack and being disoriented by rapid shifts in culture, we see things that other people don't. We interact with people whose lifestyles are 180 degrees from what our native cultures think of as "comfortable." And, depending on where we travel, we can bear witness to the devastation brought to a society by the lack of what most of the Western world considers basic necessities: education, transportation, plentiful food, adequate healthcare and ready access to clean water. It's the last of those that is often the most heartbreaking.

I don't know about you, but the first thing I reach for in the morning is water. If I'm on the road and don't know when I'm next going to have a chance to eat, I might get cranky, but it's not that big a deal. If I'm running low on drinking water and don't know where I'm going to be able to stock up, however, I get worried. But my worries pale in the face of global water statistics:
  • 109 million. That's the total number of hours walked by women and children in Africa every day in search of water to use for cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking. If they can find the water they need, it's often from muddy ponds or watering holes, polluted by animal and human waste. So in addition to keeping children out of school and women from working to establish a business, the perpetual search for water leads them to sources that often make them ill.
  • 42,000. That's the number of people who die each week from water-borne diseases or lack of access to water worldwide. That adds up to more in a year than all violent deaths worldwide combined, including those caused by war. And the worst part? 90% of those deaths, weekly, are children under the age of five.
  • $12.8 billion. That's the amount (USD) polluted coastal waters and the health problems they cause cost the global economy every year.
  • 1 in 8. That's the number of people, worldwide, who don't have access to clean water.
Water - access to clean sources, preservation, conservation and awareness of the issue - is a global problem, and it's going to take a global solution to set it right. The travel community, made up of people who have lived in the Western world, where water is taken for granted, many of whom have also lived in or visited parts of the world where water is scarce, can offer a unique perspective. Today, I challenge you use it. Here's what I hope we, as travelers - from round-the-world nomads to casual vactioners - can do:
  1. Raise awareness. Visiting a community that has to go to extreme lengths to get water, clean or otherwise? Take photos and share them with the people you know. Staying at a resort or couchsurfing at a home that has a unique way of conserving water? Blog about it. If you have a permanent place of residence, talk to your city council, homeowners' association or building management to see if any of the solutions you've seen are feasible for your area.
  2. Lend a hand. Helping local cultures directly can be tricky, especially for transitory visitors. What's easy is bringing the plight of a place you've been to the attention of people whose business it is to help. Groups like charity: water, Ryan's Well Foundation and work tirelessly to find clean water solutions for communities around the world, but they can't help if they don't know where there's a problem. A simple email could be the catalyst for setting a clean water project in motion for a community you've visited - so send it! And if you have a little cash you can spare, make a donation.
  3. Monitor your usage. Most long-term travelers are conservationists by nature of the way they live: they don't buy a lot of products that take exorbitant amounts of water to produce or run (clothing, electronics, kitchen appliances) and they're conscious of their water usage for bathing, washing clothes, etc. because they're usually sharing facilities with others. But the more traditional travel industry (chain hotels, luxury resorts, cruiseships, etc.) uses exorbitant amounts of water every day. Talk to your concierge to find out if it's possible to have your linens changed every three or four (or five...) days if you're going to be in the same place for a while, rather than every day. If you're visiting a place where the water is safe to drink, bring a reusable bottle with you for water, or buy a large bottle your first day and reuse it for several days.
Most of us take water for granted, even if we occasionally have to do without for longer than we'd like during our travels, or buy bottled water to do simple things like brush our teeth. Imagine living every day weighing how much water you have or can find against all of the things you need to do with it. Imagine cooking your dinner in a pot filled with brown water that you know is likely to make you sick. Imagine not being able to reach for a drink of water when you're thirsty. Imagine that, and join me in doing what you can to raise awareness and bring clean water to the people who need it most.

This post was written as part of's Blog Action Day 2010. There are more than 4,690 blogs in 135 countries participating right now - to add yours, click here. Blog Action Day 2010 is also taking place on Twitter, using hashtag #BAD10. To read a post about the water crisis geared more toward a U.S.-based audience than the travel community, visit There Is No Spoon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Teaching Italian by Impatience

Courtesy of McLoy2008, Creative Commons
Italy, the second stop my parents and I made during my first trip out of North America at 15, was my first experience spending time in a country where my only knowledge of the language was whatever I could find in the phrasebook. I refuse to ever start a conversation by addressing someone in a language other than their own, no matter how pathetically, so I had learned the basics: Buon giorno ("Hello"), Parla inglese o francese, per favore? ("Do you speak English or French?"), Vorrei... ("I'd like..." - when in Italy, being able to order the amazing food is critical.) and some other basics, like counting to ten, please, thank you and the omnipresent scusi, for getting through crowds at least semi-politely (which, I realize, is completely un-Italian).

Throughout Florence and San Gimignano, my limited Italian worked beautifully. Someone always knew enough English or French to talk to me after I gave them my standard greeting, and my food vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds, supplemented with great words like cinghiale - wild boar. Fun to say, although my dad enjoyed the actual eating of it much more than I did.

On the train to Sorrento by way of Naples, however, I hit a linguistic wall in the form of a Trenitalia employee. I had wandered into the dining car in search of some water and approached the bored-looking woman behind the counter with a smile.

"Buon giorno!"
She nodded in return.
"Parla inglese, per favore?"
She gave a brief shake of her head and half arched a brow at me, as if to say "Why would I? And now what are you going to do, ragazza?"
"Parla francese...?"
Another head shake. Hm. Well, I'd seen enough ads for bottled water, maybe I could do this.
" bottiglia di acqua? Per favore? Naturale, per favore? ("Can I have bottle of water? Please? Still, please?")

The woman gave me a look that said, "If it didn't take so much effort, I would roll my eyes at you. Why did you ask me to speak two other languages?" and rang up the water before muttering the total at me. I paid, said "Grazie!" and sped back to my seat to tell my parents I'd spoken a whole non-pasta-related sentence in Italian.

That Trenitalia employee, sullen though she may have been, taught me a lesson that's come in handy many times over the years: it's when under pressure to communicate that you realize the full extent of what you know. That's the premise of language education by immersion: you subconsciously absorb the language you see and hear and, when given no option but to use that language to communicate, your subconscious shoves it into your conscious mind. Terrifying as it can be, it works. Even on Italian trains.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Wandering Student Tackles Packing, Part I

Confession: I'm a pack rat. I've gotten infinitely better about it in the past five years or so, but there was a time not so long ago when I wouldn't let my mom get rid of any of my old stuffed animals, even the ones I completely ignored as a kid. I'm much more practical than I used to be, but I'm still wildly sentimental and afraid of throwing out anything that might possibly be useful somewhere down the road.

My luggage for my first experience studying outside the U.S. was a picture-perfect example of how not to pack that still makes me cringe. For my first semester, I essentially threw every piece of clothing there was a remote possibility I might wear into the large duffel bag, large suitcase and carry-on suitcase I took with me, until I ran out of room. I came to my senses a little bit before winter break and brought half a suitcase of clothes it had become clear I was not going to wear back home with me, but the books, notebooks and souvenirs I accumulated by the end of the year more than made up the difference.

I've since learned how to pack for most travel situations with only carry-on luggage (although being a runner who hates to go more than a day or two without a run sometimes makes that difficult on longer trips), and that empty space in a suitcase won't kill me but is, in fact, a good thing.

Packing for two years in Australia, however, is going to be a challenge.

My first step toward making the process a smooth, efficient one was to buy a backpack, which will be a good way to get things to Australia that will easily convert to being a good way to travel during school breaks. I went to REI while I was in Southern California this past weekend, since I live nowhere near any outdoor stores and the REI a friend of mine works at was right around the corner from my hotel.

I've never bought a pack before, so I did my research before even thinking about actually buying one. I got measured and semi-fitted for a few I was considering months ago, then did some more research. I went into REI thinking I knew which pack I wanted (a women's Osprey Aura 65), but it didn't feel all that great once it was weighted. An incredibly helpful employee named Nelson (hooray for friends of friends!) who is much more knowledgeable about backpacks and how they should fit than I am loaded up four separate packs for me, tweaked the fit and told me what looked good and what didn't to his experienced eye. The Aura seemed to carry the weight too high, I loved the fit of the hip belt in the Gregory I tried on but the shoulder straps felt like they were grinding bone, the REI-brand pack was okay but nothing spectacular and I wasn't thrilled with the idea of a top-loading pack with just one pocket.

Please forgive my terrible photography
skills when it comes to large inanimate
objects that aren't scenery.
 The women's Deuter ACT Lite 60 + 10 SL surprised me. Since there's only one size that you adjust with a series of "rungs" built into the back, I expected it to fit poorly and be too big for my short torso. But once Nelson had adjusted it for my height and we had all of the straps dialed in, it felt great. Twenty pounds isn't a lot of weight, but it was enough to make me seriously uncomfortable with the packs that didn't fit properly; with the Deuter on, I felt like I could walk around all day. I wandered around the store for a while (looking ridiculous since I was wearing a sundress and sandals with no support at all thanks to having been at the local fair all day) and finally decided this was it. The yellow flower that comes with each of these packs is a fun bonus, but it'll be coming off before I head down under. It's pretty, cheerful and I love the color and the little bit of flair it adds, but it screams "I'm a woman - rob me!" just a little too much for comfort. (But good job, Deuter marketing department!) Maybe I'll toss it in to wear in my hair now and then.

Charming, but probably not a good idea for
actual backpacking.
Since I'm going to be living in Australia for two years and will have a semi-permanent base at school, my new pack isn't all I'll take, in the interest of not having to do laundry twice a week and being able to settle in a bit. I'm still debating whether a 60-liter pack qualifies as a carry-on. Largely empty and cinched down this weekend, it fit in the overhead bin just fine and the Southwest employee I asked about it said it was an acceptable carry-on size, but I'm not sure that will be the case when it's full (any opinions on or experiences with this, please let me know!). If I do end up carrying on my pack, I'll check a rolling duffel - maybe two - and carry on a shoulder bag to go under my seat. If not, I'll check my pack and a rolling duffel, and probably carry on a rollerbag and a daypack.

With three-and-a-half months to go before I leave, I'm still feeling pretty ahead of the game (except that now I want to take my pack everywhere with me so I get used to it - and because it's pretty). Next up on the packing checklist: figuring out what's going in the luggage!