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!