Category

Travel Advice

toby, train, tracks, dancing
Adventure, Travel Advice, U.S.

What to Do with a 10-Hour Train Ride

I’ve done that thing again.

That thing where I look at plane tickets, look at train tickets, enter all available data into an elaborate equation (something like, Value = Adventure / Cost + Adventure x Time + Cost/Environmental Cost) and decide to take the ten-hour train.

Again.

You see, adventure counts twice in my calculations… and I value my time a bit differently.

So I’m sipping on free hot water (having exhausted my ten-hour snack supply in just over seven hours), watching an obstinately rainy day pass me by—all the way from Vermont to Philadelphia.

It’s not a bad day for a train ride, I have to admit. The sky is a study in gray. Wisps of cloud catch in green hills, blur the horizon, put me to sleep.

I wake up quickly; I think my feet are getting frostbite. I set up camp in the cafe car. Consider diving into a pile of work. Think the better of it. Return to staring out at the nondescript, along-the-tracks landscape.

I’ve taken so many absurdly long train, bus, and ferry rides, keeping count lost all meaning a long time ago. Barcelona to London: Why go in two hours when you can take two days, via Paris and the Chunnel? Tangier to Barcelona: What fun is the plane when a thirty-hour boat ride gets you 100% there? Stockholm to Turku: Thirteen hours and no regrets! Goa to Kolkata: In hindsight, maybe forty hours was a a bit long…

A love of slow travel, a desire to lighten my footprint whenever possible, and a stubborn resistance to doing things the easy way all feed into these choices.

But I realize that whiling away an entire day—or more—on a train doesn’t come without practice. I haven’t forgotten my astonishment at my fellow passengers in Nepal, where I took some of my first twelve-hour bus journeys. They put me to shame, doing nothing for the entire journey, never complaining, and maintaining perfect serenity during the hours of touch-and-go traffic leaving Kathmandu Valley.

And so, if you have a ten-hour train journey ahead of you, or another trip just as daunting, I’d like to offer a few of my favorite activities to help you pass the hours:

  1. People watch. This activity could, without exaggeration, occupy all ten of those hours, especially when coupled with eavesdropping. The man in the seat behind me telling another passenger how he never learned how to read words, only concepts. The woman across the aisle discussing, at length, a petty workplace drama. The endless procession of human faces, voices, expressions—mundane and extraordinary at once. Yes, one could certainly people watch for ten hours.
  2. Crochet, or otherwise make things. When I traveled from Philadelphia to Miami by train in 2013, I spent about four hours of the thirty-hour odyssey crocheting a hat for a particularly odd and impressively drunk character sharing the cafe car with me. Activities that occupy the hands but leave the mind free to wander are ideal for long trips.
  3. Read. Bring a fresh book you know you’ll love. The longer the better. This time I brought The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, and it enthralled me. If you’d happily sit on the couch with a good book all day, you can stop reading right now; your ten hours are sorted.
  4. Write. Whether or not you’re a writer is beside the point. Write down observations, stream of consciousness, the funny things people said while you were eavesdropping. These words may serve some purpose later on, or you may never look at them again. Also not the point.
  5. Make lists. If you can’t think of anything else to write, there are always lists. I happen to love lists—the way they sit uselessly on my desktop after I make them, their satisfying list-ness, the irrational sense of efficiency I feel when writing them. Maybe you’ll be equally entertained by this activity… or maybe not.
  6. Eat. On travel days, I drop any preferences or pretenses I usually have about food. Today I feasted on cherries and leftovers, but sometimes it’s chocolate and chips. While normally I wouldn’t advocate for eating out of boredom, long train (or bus, or ferry) rides are a special exception. Entering a liminal space, free from the normal constraints of time and metabolic physics, is one of the advantages of traveling this way after all.
  7. Work. Just kidding—travel days aren’t work days! Be it a lack of reliable wifi or the soporific rattling of tracks, these journeys don’t usually support much work. But if you need to get things done, there’s certainly time.
  8. Do nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. Stare out the window and daydream about mountains that hold up the sky. Close your eyes and turn the rocking of the train into music. Lean back, put your hands in your lap, and just sit there. I think we could all do with a little more nothing in our days. A ten-hour train ride is a good place to start.

Additional uses of time that may inspire you: listening to music, meditating, talking to strangers, walking up and down the aisles, stretching, deleting old files off your phone, gobbling fresh air in the areas between coaches…

Think that just about covers it!


How do you pass a long journey? Please share your favorites with me!

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going out alone, dance, dancing
Adventure, Europe, Travel Advice

How to Go Out Alone (& Not Hate It)

It’s 2009, and I’m eighteen. Paris is home for the year.

It’s a chilly night in early winter. Ten or eleven o’clock. I’ve just gotten off the metro somewhere in the center of the city.

Buzz. Buzz. The text messages, which don’t yet reach underground, arrive in a flurry. “Can’t make it.” “Running late. Might bail.” “May come later. Not sure.”

Well shit. I’m not going in there alone. My first instinct is to flee right back the way I came.

But then I glance at the bar—warmly lit wood and brass, clientele dressed in the ultra-chic black uniform of the city—and my natural stubborn streak takes over.

So what if no one else is coming? It’s Friday night, and it took me forty-five minutes to get here. I’ll be damned if I go home without at least checking out the scene.

I open the door. Step into the warm light. Rest an elbow on the narrow wooden bar. Order a glass of wine—white, I think.

The clamor of several dozen voices reaches my ears at once. I absorb it as I sip my wine, but before long someone strikes up a conversation with me, and my focus narrows to just one. I practice my French. Find that it comes easily with strangers, without pressure. Somehow I find myself at a table with a dozen young people from the south of France. Celebrating a birthday—I think.

The evening flows, and I leave for home many hours later, glowing with perverse satisfaction more than anything. I went out alone, and it didn’t suck. So there, world!


I’ve been meaning to write this piece for years. All credit goes to the friend who asked me last week what I did about going out alone when I travel: Thank you for reminding me.

That night in Paris was, in a way, a pivotal moment in my solo travel career. It’s one thing to hop on a train alone, sightsee alone, or even eat at a restaurant alone. We might do all of these things with ease, yet panic at the thought of entering a bar or club without backup. And by “we” I mostly mean “we women,” as that is the experience I feel I can speak to.

Why? Why is this the impassable limit of independence?

Well, first off, we’ve had it drilled into our heads that this simply is not done. That old fear rhetoric strikes again. Creepy guys, lechy guys, drunk guys; social stigma, weird looks, pitying stares; feeling lonely, awkward, unpopular, uncomfortable—

Ahhh stop! Forget it. Let’s never go out alone. We’re convinced. Right?

No! Let’s go out alone, because, as usual, reality is better than our imagination—and certainly better than our nightmares.

I went to bed that November night in Paris feeling empowered. “Not sucking” may seem like a low bar for an evening out, but when we’re conditioned to expect utter disaster from any solo foray into social adventures, “not sucking” is actually high achievement.

In the years since, I’ve often gone to pubs, live shows, dance clubs, bars, and festivals alone. Sometimes I even—gasp—prefer it. Story for another time.

going out alone, dance, dancing

I think the “how” of going out alone is fairly self-explanatory, but I’d break it down something like this:

> No expectations/low expectations. If you’ll happily go home disappointed, a nice evening out is a pleasant surprise.
>> Stay sober-ish. Obvious. Safety in self-possession, especially if you’re trying the solo adventure thing.
>> Stay open—to possibility, to people, to surroundings. There’s potential in everything.
>> But be prepared to deflect all the kinds of creepy. Welcome to the world. Books are excellent shields. So are crazy-arm, spinning-jumping dance moves.
>> Just open the damn door and go in.

Worst case scenario? It’s terrible, you go home, and you can blame me later for even suggesting such a thing.

Best case scenario? You learn that you truly can do anything, because you’re a badass, and life isn’t as scary as everyone tells you.

Cheers!

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life lessons travel
Adventure, Nomadism, Travel Advice

7 Hardcore Life Lessons Travel Teaches Faster

Travel is a relentless teacher.

There are no bathroom breaks, no question and answer sessions, and no weeks off for study or review.

We jump in, and there we are. We learn on the fly, or we fall on our face. Or, we fall, and then we learn to fly.

Whatever the order of events, we learn, and we learn fast when we get out there. These are a few of the life lessons I’ve found travel teaches fastest:

1. Let Go of Expectations.

That time you think you bought an apple pastry at the Finnish supermarket, but when you bite into it the orange mush inside is anything but apple—and it might be tuna fish. The time you order the cheapest thing on the menu at a rural Kenyan restaurant, and of course it turns out to be beef tongue. When you board your train to Rome, and find out you’re heading to Geneva…

Yes, life is full of surprises; never more so than when we don’t speak the local language, or are in too much of a hurry to ask questions. At some point, I realized I’m more surprised when I do get what (or where) I wanted than when I don’t.

Welcome the unexpected.

2. Eat the Food.

I’m not vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, vegan, low-fat or high anything else. While I’ve met many brave souls who stick to their dietary restrictions while on the road, I’ve learned it’s a hell of a lot easier (and maybe healthier) to eat whatever’s available. Not to mention unique culinary-cultural experiences don’t usually follow our rules. I frequently choose to eschew the privilege of choice (the eschewing of which, yes, is a privilege in of itself) in favor of honoring a friend’s hospitality or sampling a street snack I’ve never seen before.

Eat the food. Maybe we regret it the next morning, but in the balance, it’s worth it.

3. Be Flexible.

Would you sleep in a boat? Would you sleep on a coat? Would you sleep on the floor? Would you sleep while they snore? It’s not Dr. Seuss; it’s a night in the life of a traveler. Parks, boats, train hallways, packed dirt, wooden pallet, moldy shack, noisy dorm—if you can name it, I’ve probably slept there.

Flexibility is a skill, not an inbred talent, and one which I’ve cultivated over many years. Be it food, sleeping quarters, hygiene or travel arrangements, I’ve learned—had no choice but to learn—flexibility is king of the travel kingdom.

Travel will teach us to be flexible like a ballet class on steroids.

4. The World is your Toilet.

Lest this be misconstrued, I’m not suggesting you relieve yourself in your friend’s bedroom or the public gardens. Rather more in the vein of number three, we don’t always get to be picky about our WC. London city street at three a.m.? Hey, everything’s closed, and the next bus is an hour away. Edge of a Himalayan field? The alternative is the middle of the village road.

Bottom line: we can’t be prissy about where we piss, and sometimes we have to get creative.

5. Technology Won’t Save You.

Sure, Google Maps is super handy for getting from point A to B in a new city, but it has never helped me get back when my phone dies. I’ve seen enough power blackouts and internet outages to firmly believe we can never rely on technology. It may disappear without warning—or it may not be useful once we drop far enough off the map.

We have to be resourceful—without any resources.

6. People Will.

When you’re outside the service zone, a friendly shepherd will give you directions, and he and his three dogs and two dozen goats will accompany you for the next kilometer of your journey. When you’re stranded on the side of the road, well-meaning strangers will (usually) stop and pick you up.

When emergency strikes, technology won’t save us, but the human beings around us will.

7. No Fear.

When I said yes to a stranger’s invitation to dinner in Nepal, she became a friend, and her family’s hospitality gave me one of my most memorable experiences of the trip. Jumping on another friend’s motorcycle for a two-day ride from Mustang to Pokhara tied it for first. Wherever I go, I try to say yes to every (reasonable) opportunity.

Not everyone will agree with my “yes-woman” policy, but I stand by it. From hitchhiking to midnight swims, and mountain climbs to backstreet wanders, it has led me to a treasure trove of adventures—and no regrets.

In short: leave fear behind, along with the high heels. Where we’re going, we won’t need them.

 

What did I miss? Please share your travel-taught lessons—I’d love to hear them!

***

Originally published on elephant journal.

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struggle
Culture, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Struggle: A Travel Manifesto

If you travel (or live), where the mother tongue is not your mother tongue, you will struggle. The mundane will become complex and challenging, and you will no longer take your habitual fluency in the everyday for granted.

This is a good thing.

It shouldn’t be easy. (Or at least, I strongly believe that it is through challenge, discomfort, dis-ease that we grow best.) So, this is my travel manifesto for you…

Go out into the world, and struggle:

Struggle, to purchase underwear.
Struggle, to ask directions.
Struggle, to talk about the things that matter to you.

Comprehending the cost of your coffee will be a minor victory.
Catching a compliment on the first go will be cause for celebration.
Navigating a simple interaction will thrill you—as it never could at home.

These are all very good things.

For it should not be easy, this day-to-day living.
It should not be easy, this being in the world.

So struggle, to take the bus.
And struggle, to order at the bar.
Struggle, to understand.
Struggle, to say you have understood.

For it should not be easy, this everyday living.
It should not be easy, this quotidian life thing.

When it is easy, we forget—

We forget that buying our coffee is in fact a minor victory,
that a compliment is cause for celebration,
that understanding is a miracle,
and being understood doubly so.

So struggle,
and don’t forget
that it is a privilege to move through this world with grace.

And when you do forget,
as, invariably, we do,
Go out again
and travel.

Remember what it feels like
to struggle for the simplest of rewards.

Remember not to take
anything for granted.

Remember how to move
through this world
with grace.

 

— Monday, 15 May; train Barcelona—Paris

 

*Image photographed in Belleville, Paris. Artwork by rnst.

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sagres, portugal
Culture, Europe, Travel Advice

Some Stuff I Liked in Portugal: A Rough and Tumble Guide

Portugal has made it onto just about every top travel list this year, and with good reason.

I loved the month I spent there in every way, and I want to share some of the goodness with you.

If you’re looking for the definitive guide to the country, this is not it. On the other hand, if you want to know about some of the places, food, and other things I really enjoyed, I’m so happy to share my favorite spots with you.

Enjoy this rough and totally incomplete guide to sunny Portugal. And feel free to ask if I didn’t mention something you want to know about—maybe I forgot!

I give to you…some stuff I liked and things I did in Portugal, in no particular order:

Praia da Areia Branca

Just 70 kilometers (1.5 hours by bus) North of Lisbon, Praia da Areia Branca is (one of) the chillest spot(s) I know to surf, yoga, and write songs in Portugal. Granted, I only went to two areas on the beach, but I’d go back, and that’s saying a lot. A week is perfect; I think less than that would be too short.

Stay:

Lemon Tree Hostel

Gorgeous garden out back, choice of shared or private rooms, super affordable if you go in low or mid season and opt for the surf-yoga-stay package. Comfortable, clean, and graced by the warmest and most welcoming hosts.

Pura Vida Surf Hostel

Dorms, doubles, and privates. Not actual sure how it’s different from Lemon Tree. Maybe cheaper and closer to the beach?

Surf:

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Ripar Surf School

Nicest (and, in my roommate’s opinion, cutest) surf instructors around. Great value for money. Packages available for surf/yoga/stay, or just surf/stay. As it turns out, I don’t like surf lessons, but if you’re looking to learn, this is the deal for you.

Yoga:

Yoga lessons with Carla (organized through Ripar/Lemon Tree) are a necessary complement to hours of surfing in the cold Atlantic. She is a gem of a teacher, and I was lucky to wander into her class for a week.

Eat/Drink:

Foz—

Fresh seafood, sunset views…what else is there to say? Go for one of the grill options. I won’t ruin it for you, but the skewers are served beautifully.

Sol Mar—

Catch the sun from the open terrace and relax to the sound of the waves, or sit inside and enjoy some particularly well-chosen beats. Veggie burger isn’t bad, and I hear their beetroot salad is excellent. Lemon-ginger infusion is perfect for post-surf warm-up.

Bar Central (or maybe it’s Cafe Central…you should probably ask) (Lourinha)—

If you have a car, or a friend with a car, this cafe is worth the 10 minute drive from Praia da Areia Branca for some of the tastiest Pasteis de Nata in the area. Buy a box and bring some back to share.

Dance:

Baracca Bar—

I did not go on working-surfing holiday expecting to stay out dancing until two in the morning, but that’s exactly what I did my last night in Praia da Areia Branca. The DJs on a Saturday night were unexpectedly exceptional.

Shop:

Kidding. This is not where you go for shopping.

Porto

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Porto and I are totally going steady. Portugal’s tiled, hilly, artistic northern city won my heart within twenty-four hours. I even forgive it for being uphill in every possible direction. A three-hour train or bus ride from Lisbon, it’s an easily accessible (and, in my humble opinion, unmissable) stop for any itinerary.

Stay:

Salema Cosy Home

I would highly recommend the Airbnb studio apartment I rented just to the north of the city center. Ideal for solo travelers, couples, or really good friends. Hosts were kind, solicitous, and excellent communicators.

Eat:

Ristorante Sai Cão (Rua do Bonjardim)—

Keep walking up past Trindade metro, cross the main road, and look for a blue awning on your left. Great local spot—according to my hosts people come from all over Porto to eat here—and menus for 4-5 euros.

Raiz—

Menu looks great. Comes highly recommended. I didn’t actually get a chance to eat here.

Foz Fish Restaurants—

Follow the Douro River toward the sea (walking). When the ocean comes into view and Foz is just around the corner, you’ll come to a strip of seafood restaurants on the sidewalk. Pick the busiest one, and enjoy some of the freshest, cheapest fish around.

Francesinha—

The famous Porto sandwich—layers of meat and cheese, and covered with a tomato-based sauce—available at just about any restaurant for 5-8 euros. I recommend sharing with a friend to avoid instant heart attack.

Drink:

Bar Candelabro—

Enjoy a coffee or port wine surrounded by old books. This quickly became my favorite spot to read and write in the whole city. Social hub by night, calm cafe haven by day.

Cafe Majestic—

Gorgeous (almost over the top) explosion of mirrors, brass, candelabras, and overdressed waiters. Have high tea for 20 euros…or sit down, take pictures, look at the menu and walk back out and head for Bar Candelabro instead.

Maus Hábitos—

Art gallery with bar/restaurant space, situated above a parking garage (you have to know to look for it). Funky, creative ambiance, perfect for a drink with friends, and supposedly there’s dancing on the weekends.

Dance:

Rua Cândido dos Reis—

Take your pick from a whole street full of standard bars-with-dance-floors. Nothing exceptional, but they serve their purpose if you’re looking for a party on a weeknight. Bar hop to get the full experience—Britney Spears one minute, Kizomba the next, and old school hip hop after that.

Party Boat—

Not sure how to give instructions for this…Walk along the river in the early evening. Look for a cruise boat blasting music and crowds of young people waiting to get on board. Get lucky, and buy the last two tickets to a sunset cruise dance party. Alternately, river sightseeing cruises are available daily (without the party).

Shop:

Out To Lunch

Tiny but ultra-chic selection of footwear, bags, and a few clothing items, owned and stocked by a man from Tokyo with a great eye for functional-yet-beautiful style. Boutique prices.

Pop-Up Store—

Good luck finding it, as it comes and goes, but if you do manage to stumble upon it there’s a whole world of local designers and cooking classes inside!

Do:

Rent a Scooter (140 Rua da Alegria)—

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They think of everything, so you don’t have to. Equipped us with helmets, smartphone charger, maps, plans for the day, goggles. All we had to do was hop on and get lost—and we did this spectacularly well. Set your map directions to “bicycle” to avoid highways and get into some interesting wooded situations.

 

Matosinhos

Don’t go here unless there are waves. Maybe for an afternoon to eat fish (Matosinhos has the best fish in the world, according to their tourism office).

Surf:

If there are waves, Matosinhos is an easy day trip from Porto. Take the A metro or the 501 bus from Porto center, and hop out half an hour later in the dilapidated, possibly haunted, urban surf spot. Many surf schools on the beach where you can rent equipment.

Stay:

Fish Tail Sea House

Good value for money. Well-equipped kitchen. Free bikes. Comfortable beds. Private rooms and suites available.

Do:

Kidding. Go for walks on the beach. Enjoy the downtime.

Lisbon

Charming, imperfect, and full of unexplored corners, this is my kind of city. Come for the food, the walking, and the music.

Stay:

Dom Dinis Studios

This one’s a splurge. Save it for a special occasion or for traveling with your mom. 😉 Ideal location if you like things quiet at night, walking distance to Bairro Alto and lots of funky bars and restaurants, but situated in a local, not too touristed part of town.

Be Lisbon Hostel

Budget option. Basic, but nice breakfast, clean rooms. Basically all you can ask for from a hostel.

Do:

Take a Cooking Class

lisbon, portugal

Another splurge, but a day-long adventure complete with visiting a local food market, learning loads about Portuguese cuisine, and cooking a ridiculously tasty multi-course meal, wine included.

Visit Sintra—

Again, I didn’t actually do this, but my friend did, and suggests taking a train to Sintra, renting scooters there, and then motoring out to the Westernmost point in continental Europe, Cabo da Roca. I’d take her word for it.

Walk—

Everywhere. The famous Tram 28 is crowded, to say the least; if I had to do it again, I’d probably just pull on my walking shoes and take a three hour wander from Bairro Alto to Alfama (wonderful twisty little roads) and back.

Go to Belém—

portugal

The port of departure for some of the most famous naval expeditions in history, Bélem is an easy (though hot and crowded) bus ride from the center of Lisbon. Wander over to the fort, but by all accounts don’t bother going inside, eat the Original Pastel de Belem at the cafe of the same name, Pasteis de Belem, and pause to soak in the ornate architecture of the Jerónimos Monastery.

Listen:

Fado—

A Tasca do Chico in Bairro Alto came highly recommended for a Fado music experience. Don’t make the same mistake we did; you need a reservation or you will not get a table in this tiny spot. Go for the music, not the food.

Eat:

Everything.

 

Sagres

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I couldn’t resist visiting the farthest southwest town in Europe, and it far exceeded my expectations. This place is definitely magic. According to my airbnb host, it has something to do with the rocks. Whatever it is, this would have to be my top pick for a chilled out beach holiday. Go out of season; I hear the summer gets hectic.

Stay:

Sunshine Guest House

I loved my stay at this laid-back oasis right at the edge of Sagres. Liz is a wonderful host, the garden is as peaceful as peaceful can be, and you could comfortably fit two people in the double room.

Memmo Baleeira Hotel—

If you’re going for upscale, this four-star hotel has some truly beautiful views of Sagres harbor. That’s all I can tell you about it, since I never actually stepped inside.

Do:

Surf—

Watch out for the rocks at Tonel Beach, especially if you’re like me and wipe out more than you ride waves. But the water is beautiful, not as bitingly cold as farther north, and the dramatic cliffs surrounding the beaches make an unbeatable view once you make it past the break point.

Cabo de São Vicente—

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This marks the actual farthest southwest point in all of continental Europe. It’s a slightly-hilly-but-enjoyable 6km pedal from Sagres town; if that’s not your windy cup of tea, I believe the regular local bus goes that way several times a day. Leave time to wander the paths along the cliffs

Wander—

The beaches. The cliffs. The harbor. The one sleepy main road that cuts through town. Time slows down here—let it.

Eat:

Mum’s

This could not be more inaptly named—definitely not home cooking. A little pricey, but a good “last night of vacation” kind of treat.

Agua Salgada—

Casual, affordable, tasty. Fast wifi…if you’re into that kind of thing.

Mar a Vista—

Another beautiful view. Pricey-but-delicious food.

Drink:

Kiosk Perceve—

Unassuming local cafe overlooking Mareta Beach. Nice spot for a morning coffee; I’d skip the pastries.

Dromedario—

Apparently where all the surfers hang out at night. I went too early. Good atmosphere. Drinks are pricey but good.

 

***Note: If I have not linked to something, that’s because you 1. can’t miss it, 2. can’t find it online, or 3. can easily Google it. Enjoy! Xx

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solitude, curious
Adventure, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

When You Don’t Want to be Friendly and Open and Curious

That’s okay. It’s normal. Go ahead and hermit.

 

I stare resolutely out the window of my Uber at the windy Cape Town day, quite determined to see that any attempts at conversation die a quick death.

As our fellow hostel guest in Matosinhos (northern Portugal), a kind man from Tokyo determined to talk about marijuana at length, engages my friend in discussion about alternative cures for cancer, I stare resolutely at my book, quite determined to leave the onus of politeness on her.

A talkative-looking chap sits down next to me at a cafe. I pretend not to speak English, or Portuguese, or French, or Spanish…I stare resolutely at my coffee cup, quite, determined to be Russian for the next hour or so.

Surprised?

I write so much about openness in travel, without giving any stage time to its inevitable counterpart: closedness.

I think I’ve touched on this before, but never really delved into it: No one can be “on” all the time.

For permanent vagabonds, this can be a slow realization. After all, aren’t curiosity, openness, and willingness to engage the key ingredients to meaningful travel experiences? Sure, but then, so is balance.

I love my alone time. Fiercely. I am probably less social, less inclined to long chats, and less of a people person than you are (and I don’t know who is reading this).

I write often about kindness, talking to strangers, being open to the world—and rarely about selfishness, ignoring talkative strangers, and withdrawing from the world.

But balance, right?

Lest you mistakenly conclude after reading my blogs that one must always be friendly, happy, and socially-inclined in order to travel, let me assure you: I’m not.

After all, how else would I get so many articles written?

Someone once told me that I like the idea of people more than I actually like people, and he was probably right. Humans are so fascinating! Culture, language, food, stories—I love it, and I want to soak it all in…50-90% of the time. The other 10-50%, I really cherish my own company (another key ingredient for solo travel), and I don’t want to share it.

Balance.

For those naturally inclined to solitude, there’s a spider-web-fine line—at which you may choose to stare resolutely while seeking to avoid conversation—between comfortable, uncompromising introspection, and exhausting, unrelenting openness. And if you can dangle from that line by your toes, in an incredible feat of mental acrobatics, you just might find the recipe for richly balanced, joyful adventure.

Maybe your travel soup will have some of the same ingredients as mine:

> Ample time to read, write, yoga, and think
> Bizarre and fascinating interactions with strangers
> Learning experiences of all variety
> Wordless (heart-centered) communication with people and spaces
> Silence in abundance
> Dancing and other movement in abundance
> Kindness
> Selfishness
> Outward-focused curiosity
> Introspective curiosity
> Creative exploration
> Physical adventure

So happy travels, and happy soup-making—I hope you’ll find just the right balance.

Please share your favorite ingredients if I’ve forgotten any!

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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Africa, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Don’t Take My Word For It

Everything I have ever written, everything I will ever write, represents an infinitesimal slice (mine) of an infinitely complex whole.

I may speak of the universality of experiences such as fear, joy, loss and love. And I do believe in the value of sharing knowledge. But still, someone else’s words will never be enough.

A single truth only brings us so far.

I can write that it is Saturday, that I am in Muizenberg, South Africa, that the sun is hot and high for so early in the day. And that is all true.

I can write that I am sitting at one of the southernmost edges of the world watching the waves roll in against a backdrop of rocky peaks; that the wind and my hair and the sky taste of salt; that my shoulders ache from surfing; that seashells crunch under my feet as I walk. And that is all true.

But this information is mine only. What of yours?

The Buddha was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for anything; go find out for yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) In the Jewish tradition, debate and inquisitiveness are encouraged. We are not to simply take another’s words (or even doctrine) as truth, but rather—to fall back on a much-overused phrase—to discover our own.

I believe much of the world’s wisdom boils down to this:

Go and see.

Today, I was going to write a snapshot of Muizenberg, a small coastal town just a thirty-minute train ride from Cape Town. But I changed my mind.

You can Wikipedia that, and I think this is more important.

“Go and see” does not necessarily mean, “Drop everything and go travel the world.” Although, if that is within your means and your calling, I certainly recommend it.

“Go and see” means, “Experience the world—any world, your world—for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.”

Perhaps you won’t venture to the southernmost edge of the world, but touch the edge of something.

Maybe you won’t be crossing international borders, but find a limit, a frontier, and surpass it.

You may not “watch the sunset from every coast,” but you can watch the sunset every evening—and if it’s the watching that counts, then that’s kind of the same thing.

There are many ways to seek, many ways to wander, many ways to cross borders; I share only mine. And while I hope you enjoy seeing a certain world through my particular gaze, I also hope you will go and see, because these words, these truths, are only the beginning.

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travel, challenge, new, friends
Adventure, Travel Advice

12 Ways to Move/Travel to a New City/Country Where you Don’t Know Anyone—and Totally Rock It

I write about venturing into the unknown often.

You might say it’s my favorite theme—in life and in art. You could say it’s my greatest fear—in love and in travel. You could say it is a subject so rich and fascinating it proves an inexhaustible source of meaning and poetry.

You could say any of those things, and you would be right.

Ah, the not-knowing…it is terrifying, exhilarating, life-affirming indeed. But maybe you want a bit more practicality and a bit less poetry; maybe you have concrete travel plans on the horizon (even tenuous possibilities or dreams), and poetic rambling philosophizing isn’t helping all that much. I get that.

I drop myself into cities and countries where I know no one on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge and the freedom, but I also forget that this is a practice like any other, and may seem somewhat inaccessible at first. I want to demystify it.

The following suggestions stem from my years of solo traveling. I don’t necessarily follow them all for every trip, but one could in theory. I believe each one has a deep potential to cushion the fall into unknown territory.

1. Reach out to friends and acquaintances.
A simple “Do I know anyone in _____?” on Facebook can yield unexpected results. This method has found me friends (and often couches) in otherwise totally anonymous destinations from Prague and Montenegro to Berlin, Sicily and more.

2. Mine for connections.
Social media is a multifaceted beast, but it really comes in handy for certain kinds of travel. Asking my Facebook friends (and sometimes blog followers), “Does anyone have any connections in ___?” in the past has found me a house to rent in Cape Town, a Shabbat dinner in Paris, a yoga teaching gig in Zanzibar and so much more. The more I travel, the more this network grows—exponentially, it would seem. Couchsurfing is another amazing resource for making connections for friends and couches both.

3. Be bold—ask questions.
Every piece of information we could possibly need is available on the ground. No need to read travel forums, or even look up directions (although by all means do both if it sets your mind at ease). Depending on where I am in the world, there are metro maps, info centers, or throngs of aggressive taxi drivers at every possible port of arrival. Barring that, the local person sitting next to me on the bus/plane/train/ferry is usually an excellent resource.

4. Get Lost and Like It.
I have developed an impressive habit of always going the wrong way first. If it’s straight, I go left. If it’s left, I go right. I then employ method #3, ad infinitum, to take the longest route possible to my intended destination (thank you, legs). Getting lost is a common consequence of going in blind; even if we don’t like it, we can bring our sense of humor along for the walk.

5. Set up a work trade.

While it is 100% possible (and yes, fun and exciting) to just go explore a new place and find your way upon arrival, I have often found more depth and connection through work exchanges. Websites like wwoofing, workaway and helpx are just a few of many platforms for finding interesting, short-term placements abroad. Working or volunteering is, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to integrate into a community and create my place in the formerly unfamiliar. It is also an incredibly practical resource for information.

6. Set up an Airbnb.
If, like me, you need to work while you wander (or, also like me, you don’t want to commit to too much socializing), but still want an entree into local community, Airbnb is unparalleled. Set your price, browse your options, and choose a host who seems interesting. I’m still in contact with several of my Airbnb hosts, and owe unique memories (like tasting the best chocolate gelato in the whole world) to them.

7. Keep up with hobbies.
I always carry two extra pairs of shoes with me: dance and climbing. Dancing tango in Kenya, salsa-ing in Berlin and climbing in Cape Town, I’ve connected with people I never would have met otherwise. Same goes for surfing in Morocco and hiking in Spain. Those are my passions; follow yours, and you’ll find your people—anywhere.

8. Become a regular.
There is something uniquely grounding in being a regular customer (in a cafe, restaurant or even corner store)—in simply being recognized. When our default mode is anonymity, feeling seen, known, familiar offers a powerful sense of place. Especially when I have a few weeks or months somewhere, I find myself accumulating these “regular” spots. Though utterly departing from all known routine is a key—even necessary—element of travel for me, glimpses of familiarity within the unknown provide welcome—even necessary—moments of respite.

9. Let go of should’s.
I believe having a mile-long checklist of “must sees” and “must dos” limits potential for spontaneous discovery. I tend to get a decent amount of touristing in when I visit a new place, but I try not to force it. Excursions happen organically—often with new friends—when I genuinely want to do them, and not because I feel like I’ll be failing at travel if I don’t.

10. Cook.
My experience of travel altered hugely when I started to prepare a lot of my own meals (just as I used to when I lived in one place). Not all, of course, since tasting local cuisines is hands down the best part of traveling, but many. Wandering local markets, I’ve honed new language skills, felt rooted in my home-of-the-moment, and saved serious money. Choosing an Airbnb with a kitchen facilitates this, as does staying with friends. Cooking a beautiful meal has long been my favorite way to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

11. Talk to strangers.
They’re not scary—usually. When they are creepy, it’s usually pretty clear to my intuition. Strangers are typically one of three things: treasure troves of insider information, friends you haven’t met yet, or an excellent story for later. Instructions for talking to strangers: eyes up, shoulders down, words out.

12. When all else fails, fail.
I have days—sometimes weeks—where my social self goes into hibernation, my patience drops to zero, and the challenge of the unknown shifts from exhilarating to tiresome. When that happens, I take time to write, read, call friends and family, and simply be. No one can be “on” all the time. This lifestyle of exploration and discovery has curves and cycles, just like any other. These moments of pause make the adventure all the richer.
 
May your journeys be—yours.

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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conscious travel
Nature, Travel Advice

This is What Conscious Travel Looks Like

I wrote this for a masters application, but I think it’s worth sharing with more than a few admissions officers! What follows is an incomplete, but nonetheless important, analysis of the social, political and environmental issues facing the growing international tourism industry—and what we can do about them…

***

The tuk-tuk driver is angry. The passengers are drunk. Instigating.

They don’t want to pay. Too much. A crowd of other drivers and tourists collects around the ugly scene. It’s past midnight.

The situation nearly escalates to blows before friends of the passengers pay for them, and the tuk-tuk driver withdraws, hardly pacified. A bitter tasted remains in the air as the crowd disperses.

Everything wrong with a global, multi-billion dollar industry comes to a head in these few moments. Economic disparity. Cultural ignorance. Tension: between tourist and local. Competition: between local and local. Anger: everywhere.

In several years I have witnessed an excess of these scenarios; it is difficult to choose just one.

Tourism is the fastest-growing industry worldwide, surpassing oil, agriculture and automobiles. Many economies already depend on it, and more will join their ranks as the global middle class continues to expand, nurturing a growing curiosity about other people and other places. International tourist arrivals are forecasted to reach 1.8 billion annually by 2030—up 66% from their current levels.

If anyone thinks tourism is a frivolous area of concern, now would be the time to think again. The industry has a far-reaching impact, touching environmental, social and political sectors with long, insistent fingers.

Now, there are meaningful, constructive, sustainable and mutually beneficial ways for tourism to develop in a community, and then there is everything else.

Unsustainable tourism looks like luxury hotels in Zanzibar that truck in their drinking, washing and toilet water from the mainland (the island was never made to support such population density), and then flush it into the no-longer-so-pristine Indian Ocean. Unethical development looks like private tour companies in Shanghai that exploit local peoples—foreign tour operators organizing for tourists and expats to visit local homes, schools and community centers in order to offer clients an “authentic” experience, yet forgetting to allow those local communities the privilege of self-representation. Economically-damaging tourism looks like property costs rocketing in Cape Town—rendering the cost of living in the city prohibitively expensive to most South Africans, while European visitors happily pay top-euro for short-term rentals.

I have observed all of these trends up close. Working in media and travel, I regularly witness the negative impact of tourism—and the narratives around it—on local communities. I observe traditions warped to a narrow, outsider’s view of what they should be; competition for American dollars festering amongst former friends; natural havens destroyed by overeager and under-planned development; real, complex history and conflict glossed over by an appealing portrait of tropical paradise.

Initiatives in sustainable tourism, ethnotourism, slow travel and community-driven tourism are numerous and promising, however.

As I see it, for the travel industry to move forward—toward promoting cross-cultural understanding, integration and peace, and away from perpetuating disparity, conflict and ignorance—it must proceed in the following ways:

>> Industry professionals must empower local communities to represent themselves—their stories, traditions, spiritual practices and identities—and move the typical industry narratives far beyond the usual stereotypes and generalizations. Words like “authentic,” “real,” and “untouched”—frequently used in marketing by tourists, professionals and locals alike—must be scrutinized for the rigid cultural portraits they propagate and the complexities they belie.

>> Local communities must leave space for multiple storylines, idiosyncrasies and complexity to coexist. The wealthy, privileged male perspective commonly embodied by local leaders in tourism is not the only one. Creating space for female voices, religious and ethnic minorities, and other less favored stories to be heard—diversifying tour guides, business owners, service industry professionals and marketing materials—will be a crucial element of inclusive development.

>> Both local communities and industry professionals must seek to integrate education, interaction and meaningful connection to place wherever possible. It is not enough to gloss over conflict and offer an artificial, romanticized image of a place and its history and people. Moving beyond one-line summaries and fantasized, fetishized representations of otherness, we begin to foster true cross-cultural awareness.

>> Foreign visitors must seek out experiences of cultural exchange and learning. The power of asking questions, listening (with open ears and closed lips), and maintaining an open mind and heart cannot be exaggerated. Good intentions are not enough; tourists have tremendous power to change industry standards by demanding sustainability, social justice and cultural awareness from the industry they fuel.

In addition, growing numbers of Chinese and African tourists—both domestic and international—are introducing a new demographic into the industry, with all the challenges that entails. Any initiative in sustainable, socially conscious travel must take into account the varied cultural norms and values of a shifting clientele. Working to understand the market they wish to influence, industry professionals will better develop it to positive effect.

Lastly, in particularly conflict-prone regions such as Israel and Palestine or post-conflict regions like Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is crucial to take into account the intersection of political events—past and present—and international tourism. Much as one might try, a visit to a foreign country does not occur in a vacuum. The political climate and history of a place are unavoidably relevant to the foreigner, impacting as they do the development of the tourism sector, the on-the-ground experience of the visitor, and the very identities with which one interacts. Moreover, the foreigner acts as a mirror and ambassador, influencing, at the micro level, global awareness and perception of a given place. Given these considerations, we cannot underestimate the power of 1.8 billion people moving around the globe to reflect and influence political, social and cultural dynamics.

The responsibility for further development lies not only with industry professionals, nor only with local communities or foreign visitors. Indeed, only with a concerted effort from all three sides will this massive modern entity act as a positive force for understanding, tolerance and harmony.

***

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