Saturday, January 22, 2011

Snapshots: Inis Mór

Standing on the deck of the ferry, I inhaled deeply, grinning at the smell of the sea air and the feel of the sun on my face. This was not the weather I had expected to find in the West of Ireland in April, but I wasn't about to complain. Nor was I at all tempted to go inside, despite the crisp sea breeze. I'd propped myself against the outside wall of the ferry's main cabin, where I was partially shielded from the wind, and leaned back to watch the largest of Ireland's Aran Islands approach on the horizon: Inis Mór.

The coast of Inis Mór, dotted with famine walls.
As we docked, I debated my transportation options for the day: minivan tour, bike rental or hoofing it. Having taken a bus tour of The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher and Aillwee Cave the day before, I wasn't about to sign on to be cooped up in another car for hours, and renting a bike felt like an unnecessary expense on such a gorgeous spring day, so I opted to walk.

Walking along Inis Mór's main road, outside Kilronan.
The spring sunshine had apparently addled my over-planner's brain, since I didn't actually know how far it was from the dock to Dún Aonghasa, the medieval cliff fort that I'd decided would be my target destination. This was completely out of character, but I was enjoying wandering around, drinking in the scenery, too much to care. (It also didn't dawn on me to question why I hadn't seen anyone else on foot until I'd been walking for about an hour.)

I wandered past ruins...

...past thatched-roof houses...

...past some of the hundreds of miles of famine walls on the island, built during the Great Famine of the 1840s for about half a penny per worker per day...

...past beaches and numerous cows....

Eventually, I started to wonder if I should have paid a little more attention to the length of the island that was probably noted somewhere in my guidebook - or asked someone how far Dún Aonghasa was from Kilronan. Since I'd spent about an hour and a half eating lunch and then shopping for an Aran sweater, mid-afternoon was rapidly approaching and I was starting to get a little worried about making it back to the dock for the 5pm ferry - the only one before the next day.

Finally, I could see what had to be the cliff fort up ahead (although it took me a while to realize that it was too tall to be another famine wall, and that the daylight coming through a section of it was probably a door):

I picked up the pace and stopped taking photos every five feet, intent on making it to Dún Aonghasa with enough time to explore a bit before I had to hurry back to the dock. I made it to the visitor center, paid my student entry fee (a very reasonable €1; €3 for non-student adults) and started up the trail to the fort at as fast a clip as I could manage.

The winding trail between the visitor center and the fort from near the top.
As I entered the outer enclosure of the fort itself, I looked around at the rock walls and well-trodden grass, trying to picture how it would have looked as a community. It was interesting, knowing that humans had been living in this area for more than 2,500 years, but it wasn't the impressive stronghold I'd been expecting.

Looking at the space inside the middle enclosure of the fort, from near the entrance to the inner enclosure.
Then I stepped into the center of Dún Aonghasa and immediately changed my mind. The sound of the sea, subdued in the larger, more open outer and middle areas of the fort, echoed off the rocks and sent wind whipping through the half-circle of the fort's inner enclosure. I stepped to the edge and had trouble catching my breath as I sat down to marvel at the view: between the power of the ocean crashing at the base of the island below, the unscalable cliff face rushing vertically to meet it and the beauty of the sun glancing off the water as far as I could see, I was dazzled.

Looking southeast along the coast. This side of Inis Mór is ceaselessly battered by the Atlantic Ocean; Kilronan and most of the settlements cluster around and spread out from the more sheltered bay at the island's northeast corner.
Looking the other direction along Inis Mór's southern coast.
I wanted to stay, soaking up the beauty and strength of the cliff fort for hours longer, but I was already going to have to run to catch the ferry, so I reluctantly made my way back down the trail, pausing just long enough to grin at the cows lying placidly in a small pasture near the visitor center.

I headed back down the road and tried not to panic when I saw that even the minivan tours were starting to head toward the dock. I didn't have anything with me except a bottle of water, my camera, a guidebook and the sweater I'd purchased after lunch, and I really didn't want to search out a hostel room when I had a cozy one, with things like my toothbrush and clean clothes in it, that I'd already paid for back in Galway.

I passed a small café just as a tour was coming out of it to get back in their minivan and seized the opportunity. I waved at the driver and dashed across the road. I explained my predicament and asked if he had any room - at that point, I was happy to pay for a seat in any vehicle faster than my legs going in the right direction - or if he knew of any taxi or bus service on the island. His tour had one seat open, so he told me to go ahead and hop in. I thanked him profusely and did so, asking how much the tour was. He was kind enough to only charge me €5, although I'm sure the full price was at least twice that.

Thanks to the driver's willingness to pick up idiot tourists who hadn't quite paid enough attention to planning their day, I made it to the dock with time to spare and was able to sit and watch the ferry come in.

Inis Mór is a place I'd like to get back to and spend more time exploring. There are footpaths and bike-able roads all over the island, which it turns out I only covered about half of that afternoon (~7km, or ~4.3mi, as opposed to the 14km+ of the island's full length). I'd also like to go back to Dún Aonghasa when I don't have to leave in a rush. And although this lapse in over-planning and exercise in winging it was probably good for me, and I certainly enjoyed the day, I've been careful to calculate times and distances in similar situations since!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Americans in Florence: Obnoxious vs. Incognito

No logos or flags here!
Like many travelers, I do my best to blend in on the road. I don't actively hide the fact that I'm American and if anyone asks where I'm from, I'll tell them (although I'll probably make them guess first), but neither do I advertise my nationality. I don't wear shorts or hoodies in Europe, I don't wear American flags or baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of a U.S. sports team, political organization or school and I certainly don't wave my passport around. I speak as much of the local language or dialect as I can and try to learn the customs out of respect for the people who live by them, not to mention in hopes of leaving a positive impression behind for the foreign visitors, including my fellow Americans, who arrive after me. So when I see Americans doing exactly the opposite, flaunting their nationality, completely ignoring local customs and speaking - loudly - in American-accented English, it never fails to make me grit my teeth in frustration.

I ran into one such group of Americans in the middle of fall break during my year abroad. Four of us had traveled together to Florence for several days and we were splitting up - two of us heading to London and the other two further south in Italy - the next morning. We'd had a wonderful time in Florence and wanted to celebrate our last night en vacances together with a nice dinner, so we found a place in the heart of the city and sat down, rubbing our hands together in greedy anticipation of more delicious Italian cuisine.

I went to Florence to see things like Il Duomo, not to hear
tourists arguing with each other at the top of their lungs.
Since the four of us were all enrolled in the same study abroad program, one that required its students to speak French 100% of the time, we had decided at the beginning of our trip not to fall out of practice on vacation. ("Practice" aside, we'd learned during recent parental visits that our various regional accents in English made it nearly impossible for any of us to complete a sentence without at least one of the other three bursting into a fit of laughter. With friendships formed in French, we just sounded too strange to one another in English to make it practical.) I felt far less visible as a French tourist than I ever had as an American, and I was enjoying it.

The table of girls seated behind us at the restaurant, however, clearly had no such reservations. They chattered away in English, much more loudly than was necessary, and my friends and I rolled our eyes at each other and wondered why Americans so often seemed unaware of the volume of their voices in comparison to the people around them. Did we do that when we spoke English, we wondered? What was it in American DNA that demanded our conversations be loud enough for everyone around us to hear?

Street art, Firenze-style! (And no one can knock this one
against the wall...)
As we talked, the painting that hung over our table began to rock against the wall at random intervals. We looked up in confusion and realized that it stretched the length of the wall our table was against, meaning it also hung above the table of the girls behind us. One of them had the back of her shoulder leaned against the bottom edge of the frame and every time she moved, so did the entire ten-foot-long painting, to which she and her friends were apparently oblivious. We tsked under our breath and went on with our conversation, but finally one of my friends seated against the wall couldn't take the constant nudging of the painting anymore. After a quick consultation, during which we decided the girl seemed the type to tell another American student to mind her own business, my friend turned around and said, in a heavily French-accented voice, "Excuse me, ze painting? It moves."

The girl gave her such a disgusted look that I nearly burst out laughing, but my friend returned her glare levelly and the girl finally shifted her shoulder away from the wall, then turned and started muttering - not quietly - with her friends about what a pain the French people behind them were. We snickered under our breath and dug into our dinner.

Just for the humor quotient, those few moments in Florence remain one of my favorite memories of that trip, but the memory of the dichotomy between two tables of American girls keeps me mindful of my actions and my attitude whenever I'm traveling. Whether I'm speaking another language and not obviously American to anyone but customs agents or revealing my nationality with the pronunciation of every word out of my mouth, I'm conscious of doing whatever I can to blend in and respect the local culture.

Certainly not all, or even most, Americans are as oblivious to their surroundings or as rude to the people around them as those girls were, but the reputation Americans have as obnoxious tourists in much of the world is due to those like them. The poor attitudes and lack of respect of that minority have painted the rest of us with the same brush and overcoming the negative impressions they've left behind can be challenging. That's why, whenever anyone asks my advice about traveling, manners, following local customs and paying attention to your surroundings are at the top of my list. As an "obnoxious American," I'd never get anything like a real look at what life is like around the world - and that's too much a part of the reason I travel to miss.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Embracing Travel Panic

Photo credit: Krysten_N, Creative Commons
I'm having one of those rare days of travel panic, when something in my brain wants to freak out and I can't quite find the right button to push to calm it down and turn off the nerves. I keep telling myself that I'm going to be in Australia for a solid two months, if not longer, before I head anywhere else, and there's no essential I could possibly forget that I can't get in Sydney, for heaven's sake, but today it just isn't working. I'm good at tamping down panic and pushing past nerves when I can't get rid of them, but they're still there and after 12 hours of feeling them bounce around in my head and my stomach, they're starting to drive me a little nuts.

Between the two browsers I use, there are 39 tabs open on my screen right now, since my usual go-to method of dealing with travel panic is to flood it out by reading up (again) on where I'm going. Five deal with travel logistics, from one on AAA's site about International Driving Permits (good news: only $15 through AAA!) to my obsessive monitoring of the price of short-hop flights between Sydney and Hobart. One is my daily check of the Aussie-USD exchange rate, which got slightly less of a wince today, since it's back down to parity after a painful jump to USD$1.02 last week. One is's comprehensive list of content available for the Kindle in the U.S., sorted with lowest price ($0.00) first, which I'm slowly making my way through, loading up my new Kindle before I take off (not that I can't continue to do that from anywhere in the world). Ten are blog posts that have caught my eye throughout the day that I'm slowly making my way through, and three are news sites, two of them Australian.

The other 19? Gadgets, gizmos and travel "essentials" that I'm still debating the necessity of buying before I leave for Sydney, three weeks from today. Looking at those pages makes me think about where in my luggage I would stow those things, which then leads me down into the death spiral of packing panic. How am I going to fit my life into 70 pounds, plus carry-ons? My pack needs to be totally ready to head to Tasmania less than 48 hours after I land in Australia, with any non-Tassie trip items easily accessible so I can pull them out and dump them in a drawer until I get back to Sydney. Did I order the right kind of travel laundry soap? How cold is it actually going to be during the winter? Oh yikes, I'm arriving in the middle of beach season and I'm pasty and I hate swimsuits. Okay, getting off track here...

All of this is compounded by the fact that I just spent a large chunk of my savings to pay my rent in Australia for the entire year, and that I've been chasing my tail trying to get a Capital One credit card, with its coveted no foreign transaction fees guarantee, for three weeks. The card, for which I had to send yards of paperwork proving I actually live at the address I claim to inhabit (because the postal service delivers all mail in my tiny town to the post office, not to individual residences, making my permanent mailing address a P.O. Box, which credit card companies can't accept, thank you so much, Patriot Act), was supposed to arrive yesterday, at the latest. It didn't, nor did it arrive today, which set those travel panic nerves simmering again as I spent twenty minutes on the phone with Capital One this afternoon to get that card canceled and a new one issued.

Then the service through which I made my travel arrangements emailed to tell me that I had been switched to a different flight between Melbourne and Sydney after my initial flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne. For the fifth time in the three and a half months since I bought my ticket.

Photo credit: Issac Z. Schlueter, Creative Commons
After that, I gave up. Embrace the panic, I thought. You know you'll get past it and get back to pure excitement eventually; maybe letting the panic have its way is the quickest route through it. So I did. I embraced the panic, flipping back and forth between two nearly identical external hard drives I'm considering and obsessing, for the umpty-billionth time, over packing cubes versus compression sacks and whether or not I should invest in a new daypack (because they obviously don't have those in Australia).

I was hip-deep in reviews of travel sheets (because the 500 I've read in the past two months certainly weren't enough) when I overheard my mom on the phone, outlining the first few weeks of my trip for one of her friends. As she talked about my plans to spend a week in Tasmania, then hang out in Sydney for a few days before grad school orientation and treat myself to a Michael Bublé concert the night before my 26th birthday, I looked up from my laptop. She mentioned that my housing was already taken care of through the end of the year, so I could move right into an apartment, and how nice it was that "with all of this Twittering and blogging and Facebook and everything" I was already looking forward to meeting so many of the people I've been talking to in Australia.

With that, the travel panic nerves unknotted and the vague headache that had been plaguing me all day was gone. I remembered that I'm about to go live in Australia, widely believed to be one of the coolest countries on earth, for two whole years! And that, thanks to all of you who read this blog and put up with my yammering on Twitter and Facebook, I'm actually heading there already looking forward to meeting some people who know the country and its customs a lot better than I do, who've made me feel welcome months before my feet will hit Australian soil. Suddenly my world was bright and shiny again, and I couldn't help but smile. (Of course, 20 minutes later, my mom and I were flipping back and forth between some of those same 39 web pages, figuring out what she wants to give me as an early birthday gift before I leave. But we were laughing while we did it!)

So from now on, whenever that travel panic grabs hold, I'm going to embrace it and let myself freak out over the five million unknown things I'm convinced I'm forgetting and obsess about the thirty thousand details I've already taken care of. All the while trusting that, when the time is right, some little ray of sunshine will pierce the foreboding gloom cast by my nerves and send me back to Happy Traveler Land with a smile on my face, excited for the adventures that lie ahead.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tales from a Hostel Bunk: Vienna

Paris' Gare du Nord: pretty, but very cold
after dark in February, mostly due to a large
surplus of windows and open doors.
Photo credit: Evan Bench/austinevan
February 2006, Vienna, Austria. Yanking my suitcase over a crack in the pavement, I exchanged a look with my friend as we neared the address of our hostel for the next few days. Maybe it was the hours of waiting at Paris' freezing Gare du Nord late the evening before or the long overnight train ride to Vienna, but the neighborhood didn't seem particularly welcoming and I was starting to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into. Neither of us had ever stayed at a hostel before and, though we'd taken the precaution of booking a female-only room, I was nervous. What if it was awful? What if our roommates were mean, or wanted to party at 3am or poked through our things?

The image in my mind's eye of the unknown hostel took on a dark, sinister quality and by the time we'd found the building, the next few nights had begun to seem like the rest of my life. Then we stepped into Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" and I started to relax. In a lobby furnished with a bright red phone booth straight off of a London street corner and a reception desk that looks more like it should be setting up adventure tours than handing out room keys, it's difficult to be nervous about your surroundings. And once you talk to the friendly staff (who further endear themselves by handing you a voucher for a drink at the basement Wombar), glance at the spacious, colorful breakfast room and arrive in front of a bright blue door decorated with a fiercely pink sign declaring the room beyond it a "Pink Wing" (female-only room), it's all but impossible not to feel at home.

The Riesenrad, a Vienna landmark since its 1897 construction.
Our "Pink Wing" was a four-bed room. One of the other two women was also American, spending several months touring Europe, and the other was an Australian winding down two years of traveling the world with a base and a part-time nursing job in Britain. The four of us found that we had quite a bit in common and within an hour were heading out in search of dinner, with our Australian roommate - who spoke German - leading the way. It was a fun evening, with conversation ranging from favorite places visited to languages spoken to the plastic content in Australian money. And the neighborhood turned out to be quiet, rather than creepy.

The next afternoon, after a day of chilly sightseeing and lots of coffee, we followed our Australian roommate's directions back from central Vienna - straight up Mariahilfer Straße back to the neighborhood where the hostel was located - with no problem.

One of Vienna's tributes to Mozart, in the
Burggarten, which I would have loved to see in
the spring, with the flowers planted in the treble
clef in bloom.
Vienna wasn't entirely what I had expected and, although it's home to some beautiful fine arts, I didn't feel much of a connection to the city or its people, which was unusual for me. I enjoyed seeing Mozarthaus Vienna, drooling at the display of grand pianos behind the window of Steinway-Haus, having a cultural excuse to drink coffee and eat pastries and wandering through the vast and impressive Oberes Belvedere, but the feeling of a temporary home, of instant connection to the culture and the people that I'd grown used to in traveling through France, Italy and England was missing. (The one significant connection I felt in Vienna was when I saw Gustav Klimt's painting, Der Kuss, in the Oberes Belvedere, and was able to spend as long as I wanted standing in front of it, absorbing the emotion and the incredible combination of colors and patterns in the painting.) Without the genuinely warm and welcoming atmosphere of the hostel to go back to every evening, the whole experience might have felt rather soulless.

Instead, I had friends - old and new - to eat dinner with, write postcards and debate literature and politics with in the Wombar downstairs in the evening and eat breakfast with in the morning before braving the bone-chilling February weather. Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" in Vienna is one of my two favorites out of all the hostels I've stayed at, and I feel very lucky to have had my first visit to a hostel be in such a clean, well-run, comfortable and welcoming one, with people who showed me what a great experience a hostel stay can be.

Wombat's The City Hostel - "The Base" is an easy ~2km walk or a short subway ride from Vienna's city center. Rooms range from private doubles and triples to six beds, and female-only rooms are available. Each room has its own ensuite bathroom with shower, and bed linens, luggage storage and in-room lockers are provided free of charge. The hostel is open 24 hours, with no lockout or curfew, and there are both pay-as-you-go computers with internet access and free WLAN connections available. What my friend and I were most amused by was the vending machine in the lobby that sold everything from t-shirts to condoms. There's also a coffee vending machine that makes warming up on chilly days much more pleasant! I don't remember what we paid, but room rates seem to have stayed very reasonable, currently ranging from €12,00 to €20,00 per person per night for a four- or six-bed room, depending on the season.