Traveling Vicariously

I’ve had several trips cancelled now, in this new, scary COVID-19 world in which we live. And travel is my reason for being. I love to go places where I’ve never been and see things that I’ve never seen. So, yeah, I’m getting a bit depressed. I’m feeling kind of claustrophobic. Which means, clearly, that I need to get creative.

I’m reading more about foreign lands. I’m watching more movies set in other countries. I’m thinking of clogging up my laptop with the Google Earth application again. I’m listening to songs sung in other languages. I’m looking at exotic recipes and wishing I could go out and get the needed ingredients. And then I’m wishing that I actually liked to cook.

I’m also playing Pokemon Go. Through that game, I’ve gone to this website and made friends from all over the world. We send each other digital postcards. It’s kind of fun, peeking into the lives of people I don’t know and will never meet. Every day I get these postcards from Spain and Norway and Mexico and Israel (to name just a few), and for a moment I feel like I’m there. There’s some fascinating art in the world.

Here are some of the postcards I’ve received that I found worthy of a screenshot. Sadly, I can’t tell you where most of these things are, because unfortunately the descriptors are less detailed than I’d like them to be. I just know that they’re anywhere but here. And that’s pretty darned cool, because at the moment, that’s someplace I can’t be.

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Sightseeing in Your Town

I am in the process of planning a trip to Italy with my husband. I’m very excited. I’m sure we’ll be seeing our fair share of cathedrals and museums and art galleries, and we’ll also be experiencing new culinary delights.

I am ever mindful of how lucky I am to be able to do this. Not everyone gets to travel. They may not have the time or the money, or they may have very valid responsibilities that prevent them from doing so.

As I plan to poke my head into every publicly accessible edifice that I possibly can, and wander through every park, it occurs to me that I haven’t done so in the Seattle area. Not by a long shot.

There’s a botanical garden that I drive past at least once a week that I keep meaning to visit but I never quite get around to it. I have no idea what the largest churches in town look like from the inside. There are great works of art hanging in local galleries that I have yet to gaze upon. And heaven knows there’s a whole host of restaurants that I’ve never patronized.

So here we are, spending a fortune to fly halfway around the world to experience the new and exciting, when there’s plenty of that stuff in our own back yard. And a lot of these things are experiences anyone can have if they make the effort. Often museums have free or discount days. Most parks are free or very affordable. You can wander into pretty much every church, (but I wouldn’t advise doing so if a service is already in progress).

I wonder why so many of us think the only sights worth seeing are those that are far away? Is it because we know the local things will always be within our reach, and we assume we’ll get to them someday? Do we place a higher premium on all things foreign? Or are we simply too invested in our Netflix stream to get up off the couch?

If you’re reading this, I challenge you to get up and go experience something near you that you’ve always been meaning to experience. Go on! You’ll be glad you did.

soos-creek-botanical
A garden near me that I have yet to see.

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Foreign Travel 101

I absolutely live to travel. It’s my reason for being. I’ve been to 22 countries, and I suspect that I have many more miles to go before I take that final sleep.

It has never been very far from my mind that I’m really a lot luckier than most people in terms of travel. According to this article, 40% of Americans never leave the country, 10% have never left their home state, and 76% wish they could travel more than they do currently. That’s a crying shame.

Based on those statistics, it’s safe to assume that for many people who are traveling abroad, it’s a trip of a lifetime for which they feel ill-prepared. But never fear. All of the advice I’m about to give you has come from years of trial and error.

First, read my blog post entitled Foreign Travel Advice for Americans. Even if you aren’t American, you’ll find it helpful. This is a very detailed post that discusses all the homework one must do prior to any trip. The more you do ahead of time, the less stressful and more fruitful your travel experience will be. I can’t emphasize this enough. For every hour of legwork you do in advance, you’ll save yourself days of hassle on the voyage.

Next, take a peek at my blog post entitled Packing for Your Trip. This is a master packing list I’ve made over time. Take that list, eliminate those things that don’t apply to you, your trip, or the season in which you are traveling, and what you have left should be a very thorough packing list for any holiday. But do yourself a favor and pack light. You have no idea how much time you’ll spend schlepping your luggage from pillar to post. So if you don’t absolutely need something, leave it home.

But it occurs to me that neither of those two posts actually gets into the nuts and bolts of building your trip. Package deals complete with tour guides are very easy and convenient, but frankly, I find those experiences to be soul-sucking. I’d much rather have a do it yourself trip, so that’s what I’ll describe below. Some of this is pretty basic, but it will come in handy if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Determine how much vacation time you have.

  2. Get a good, up to date guidebook of the country you’d like to visit, and read it cover to cover, highlighting the things you feel you absolutely must see, and, in a different color, the things you’d simply like to see.

  3. Also, talk to friends who have already taken this trip. They will be your best sources to determine what can or should be skipped, and what absolutely should not be missed.

  4. A good guidebook should be able to tell you how many days you need for each location. List your must see destinations, and how many days they should take. As hard as it may be to do, you might have to eliminate some of your must sees based on the time you have available. On the other hand, if you find you have a surplus of days (you lucky devil), you can start adding in your “like to see” destinations as well.

  5. Print out a line drawing of the country in question, and then pencil in the must-see destinations to determine which places are close together, so you can decide what route you should take through the country.

  6. Don’t forget that you’ll likely lose a half a day each time you move from one city to the next, so try to cluster your locations into hubs, and stay in central locations. Believe me when I say that it’s an absolute horror to stay in a different place every single night.

  7. Now that you have a sense of where you’d like to go, and in what order, it’s time to determine when to travel. Most guidebooks will tell you the high, shoulder, and low travel seasons for the country in question. Choose carefully.

    1. In low season, things will be cheaper and there will be fewer crowds, but certain destinations will be closed. Check before you go. It would be very unfortunate to arrive and discover that the one thing you wanted to see the most is shuttered for the next few months.

    2. On the other hand, high season is usually high season for a reason. The weather is optimal and there are a lot of exciting things going on. But the massive wall of humanity, along with their screaming children, can be a misery.

    3. I try to do shoulder season. It’s slightly less expensive and slightly less crowded than high season, and slightly more is open than in low season. If you can’t do that, at least do the very beginning or the very end of high season, especially if it means school is in session and the kiddies are less likely to be chewing on your ankles.

  8. Okay, great. Now you have a basic idea of where you want to go and when, and what you want to see. Let’s find out if it’s even possible. First of all, check into flights to and from home, and see if they’re available on the days in question. I highly recommend that you try to do your international flights on Monday through Thursday, rather than going on the weekends, as those weekday flights are usually much less expensive. But shop around. Visit Kayak.com, for example, and then check the website of the airline in question to see if an even better deal is available. Don’t forget to take advantage of any mileage points you’ve accumulated through credit cards. Don’t put this off until the last minute. The more lead time you have, the more options and price ranges will be available. You’ll find that once you’ve reserved those flights, the trip will seem even more exciting and real.

  9. Once that is done, it’s time to figure out how you’ll get from place to place within the country. Should you travel by train, bus, rental car, or domestic flights? Again, your guidebook will give you great advice along those lines.

  10. Once you have a sense of how you want to get around, and a basic skeleton of your itinerary, now check to be sure that your transportation mode is available on the desired day. No sense in planning to take a ferry to the Isle of Capri on a Sunday if the ferries don’t run on that day. Adjust your itinerary accordingly. (If you’re a museum buff, it’s also important to make sure the museum in question will be open on the day you plan to visit.)

  11. Once you’ve got your itinerary and your transportation nailed down, it’s time to reserve your hotels. Think about your budget. Decide whether you want to stay at 5 star hotels or Airbnbs or hostels or, if you’re really brave and don’t require luxury or privacy, check out couchsurfing.com. Read up on all the possibilities. Visit their websites. Check availability. Then make your reservations.

  12. Now the trip is really shaping up! It’s time to figure out what you’d like to do from day to day. What sites will you visit? How much time will it take? Take your guidebook seriously if it recommends advance reservations for various venues, and plan accordingly.

Don’t overpack your itinerary. Allow for things to go awry. Contrary to popular belief, the trains don’t always run on time. You may wish to linger longer than you anticipated. Who knows? A local might befriend you and invite you to attend a wedding. Experiences like that are priceless. Give yourself a little padding and be flexible.

Above all, remember, this is supposed to be fun! Do the work in advance and then relax and enjoy the trip! Bon voyage!

This spring, we plan to spend a few weeks in Italy! I’m so excited! I’ve wanted to explore Italy in depth for decades. But except for a brief, 12 hour taste of Venice (which was at best a cruel, frustrating tease), life just kept getting in the way. Rest assured I’ll be blogging about the experience in future posts.

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My Very Last Vacation

I live for travel. I used to go to a different foreign country every two years. I miss that. I hope to get back to that financial place again at some point. I also hope to have someone to travel with again one of these days. Traveling alone isn’t nearly as fun. Who knows what the future will bring.

One thing I do know, and that’s that I will take my very last vacation someday. I fervently hope that I don’t know it’s my last one at the time that I’m taking it. That’s a little too bittersweet for my liking.

No, I’d much rather take a lovely tour of Italy and then come home and be hit by a crosstown bus as I’m crossing the street to the bookstore to buy the guidebook for my next trip. If I have to shuffle off this mortal coil, I’d like to do it while planning for an exciting future. I don’t want to slowly circle the drain while gazing fixedly down that dark and moldy hole.

Half the fun of travel, for me, is the anticipation. The planning. I like to read everything I can about my destination, because nothing pisses me off more than coming back home to discover that there was something really spectacular within walking distance that I didn’t see. That leaves me feeling like I didn’t do my homework, that I’ve shirked my responsibilities, that I’ve failed myself.

I don’t have the luxury of returning to places I’ve visited again and again. The world is too big. There’s way too much to see. So the end of each vacation is kind of like a little death. I mourn the amazing place I’ve just been, because I know that the odds are high that I’ll never see it again. If I had to couple that mourning with the concept that I’d also never get to see anyplace else again, ever, it would be entirely too much to bear.

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Travel as a Form of Love

In a recent post, I said that love is all that matters. My friend Art replied that travel is the most important thing that there is. That got me thinking.

Travel is actually love in action. It shows that you care about other cultures and other people. It demonstrates a desire to learn about history and geography and customs and religion and the environment, and most of all, other points of view.

A few times in my life I’ve met people who haven’t traveled more than 50 miles from the place of their birth. They seemed quite content, but I kind of felt sorry for them. I can’t imagine having such a narrow worldview.

Travel teaches you compassion for others. It makes you realize that your way of doing things isn’t the only way. It may not even be the best way. Travel broadens your mind at the same time it broadens your horizons.

I have long been of the belief that every student should go to at least one foreign country before they can graduate. If that were the case, I don’t think we’d be experiencing this rampant xenophobia. We also wouldn’t be so willing to drop bombs on innocent people. If you sit at someone’s table and break bread with them, you find it much harder to think of them as the bad guys.

Travel is truly one of the most loving things you can do for yourself and for the wider world. So get out there. Be an ambassador. Be a humble student. Explore!

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Frozen Moss and Other New Experiences

I recently spent a silly amount of time walking around on the frozen moss in my front yard. It makes the kind of satisfying crunch sound that you usually only get from really high-end granola. You can feel it radiating up through the soles of your shoes. And the light sparkles off it like diamonds. These are experiences I missed out on in Florida. (Even if we had had moss there, it would rarely have frozen.)

That got me thinking about other experiences I’m having for the first time in my 50’s that most residents of the Pacific Northwest, at least here in Seattle, probably take for granted. For example:

  • It feels funny to go to the beach and walk on rocks instead of sand. It feels even funnier to know that the water will most likely be way too cold to swim in, even in the height of summer.
  • Speaking of rocks, there are large ones. Everywhere.
  • And people protest here. A lot. Most people in Florida can’t be bothered. It’s too freakin’ hot, and they’re too freakin’ old.
  • Now that I’m familiar with the mountain ranges, I can use them to orient myself. I have a constant sense of which direction on the compass I’m facing at any given time, even at high noon.
  • For the first time in my life I can state my liberal views and feel fairly certain I’m in the majority, rather than anticipate being looked upon in horror or disdain. I do not miss being the only liberal turd in a conservative punch bowl.
  • I’ve been here over two years now, and I’ve never seen a single person, not one, doing the car boogie. I do it all the time. Here, I get funny looks. What’s wrong with you people?
  • Here you can approach the edge of a lake without worrying about being attacked by an alligator. What a concept.
  • I had no idea how wonderfully caramel and salt go together until I got here.
  • I had never shopped at a Trader Joe’s until I got here. Now I’m addicted.
  • I had never driven in snow. I didn’t even know that de-icer existed.
  • I thought I knew what cherries were supposed to taste like. What a poor, deprived fool I was!
  • I’m seeing birds I’d never seen before.
  • People not only turn on their car’s lights when they’re in a funeral procession, they also flash their hazard lights. Because EVERYBODY here drives with their car lights on. Always.
  • Here, salmon is relatively affordable. I could count the number of times I’d eaten it on one hand prior to coming to Seattle.
  • There are prejudices against groups I didn’t even know existed. That’s a strange concept. It makes you realize how ridiculous prejudice is.
  • Almost everyone I meet here actually reads books. I thought I was the only one who did that.

You just have no idea how insular your life is until you experience the otherness of someplace else. I sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country. It’s very exciting. I highly recommend it.

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Smile Means Chisel in Greek

As someone who majored in a foreign language in college (I wasn’t thinking at all about how I’d pay the bills upon graduation), I have spent a lot of time thinking about the things that get lost in translation. Words are not mathematical equations. The word for something in French does not “equal” the word for that same thing in Tagalog.

Words are not just the signifier for objects. They have cultural and emotional connotations. Don’t believe me? If you say swastika to a German, it will bring up a completely different range of memories and emotions than if you say svastika, the word for the very same symbol, to someone in India. There, it’s not the dreaded symbol of the Nazi party. It’s a symbol of good fortune, luck, and well-being. You’ll often see the svastika on wedding invitations.

On top of that, pile on the fact that some languages are vastly more complex than others. When translating from a language that consists of, say, 430,000 words, to a language that has 100,000 words, how can you “make” one word equal another?

It amuses me when someone believes that they have fundamental comprehension of any text, particularly the Bible, which has been translated through so many languages, so many cultures, and so many historical perspectives. It’s like handing a high school class a first edition of the Canterbury Tales and asking them to convert it into modern slang. You’ll get wildly different results.

Is it any wonder that there are so many misunderstandings within the United Nations? I would argue that it’s virtually impossible for people who speak different languages and come from different cultures to completely understand each other. The beauty is that they even make the attempt.

I am someone who revels in the differences in this world. Without that variety, things would be awfully uninspiring. If we weren’t occasionally forced to entertain different perspectives, our minds would become rigid, inflexible and closed. Then what would be the point?

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One Year Ago Today

I remember exactly what I was doing on this day in 2014, because I had just arrived in Seattle after having driven all the way across the country from Florida. I was in a weird place mentally. I was excited about my future. I was shocked that I had actually pulled this relocation off. And I was also scared shitless.

I knew nothing about Seattle. I knew no one. I was about to start a new job and move into a place that I had rented sight unseen. Were the butterflies in my stomach a sign that I was anxiously anticipating a brighter future, or were they fighting to get out because I had just pulled the biggest bonehead move in a life that has been, to be painfully honest, chock full of bonehead moves? It could go either way.

At one point during that day I was lying on the grass in a park with my dogs. I remember feeling kind of weird because for the first time in about a week I wasn’t zooming down a highway. I had come to a complete stop. I was tired. But I felt safe. I could breathe. I liked where I was. I now pass that park every day on the way to work. I sort of wave at the memory of myself when I do.

At the same time, though, I felt a little removed from all the people around me. A stranger in a strange land. The climate, the terrain, the vibe… it all felt like I was in a foreign country. As much as I love to travel, I’m usually longing for home at a certain point. Would that happen this time? It was a moot point, because there was no turning back. That’s a rather terrifying concept.

In truth, it took me a long, long time to stop feeling strange. Some days I coped with that better than others. But I’ve begun to make friends. Romance has eluded me, but I’m starting not to really care, most of the time.

Fast forward a year. While running a bunch of errands, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t even bothered to turn on my GPS. When did that happen? And I was getting tired, and looking forward to going home. Home. Where I live now. I’m home.

So maybe it wasn’t such a bonehead move after all. Would I do it over again? I wish I had done it 30 years sooner!

There’s no place like home.

welcome to Seattlef

Travel Restrictions

Travel is my reason for being. Due to finances, I haven’t been able to leave the country in several years, but I have been to 19 other countries, and these experiences have been the high points in my life.

I strongly encourage everyone to travel. It’s the only way you can truly have an open mind. It’s the only way you’ll learn that “our” way isn’t the only way and in fact it may not even be the best way. Until everyone truly understands that concept, there is no chance for any type of peace on earth.

Having said that, as people become more financially desperate, the world is becoming an increasingly scary place, with kidnappings, incarcerations and crime on the rise. And Americans are becoming, if anything, more hated by segments of the international community.

Does that mean we should stop travelling altogether? On the contrary. Now, more than ever, we need to eschew isolation and make more of an effort to be part of the global community. Not only to spread our wealth around a bit, but also to foster as much good will as we can.

But it is very important to travel intelligently. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that it might be a good idea to avoid war zones. But it’s also important to understand the human rights philosophy of the government in question. When making travel plans, my first stop is always the State Department website, where you can read up to date reports on travel advisability and news for each country. Many countries are safe to travel in, but contain regions to avoid, and this is always good information to have. And if you fall into a particular minority group, you may want to extend your research even further afield.

As sad as it makes me to say this, I know that there are certain countries which I realistically will never visit. North Korea, for example. But also, as an outspoken woman who refuses to be treated as a second class citizen, I don’t see myself ever visiting Saudi Arabia, either. While I’m willing to respect customs related to clothing, no one will ever tell me I can’t drive. Full stop. Sadly, as a woman traveling alone, there are many parts of the world I should think twice about visiting.

My nephew has reached an age where he’s looking forward to exploring the planet, and I’m thrilled for him. I remember what that’s like, that feeling that you have endless possibilities for adventure. I love him to pieces, so it nearly killed me to have to ever-so-slightly rain on his parade.

He was talking about going to Egypt, and that’s someplace that I’ve always wanted to see myself. But I had to tell him that as the laws stand in that country at the present time, he can be incarcerated simply for being gay. He told me he didn’t plan on doing “gay things” while there, and while, yes, that would greatly reduce his risk, it doesn’t eliminate it entirely, and this is a young man who, try as he might, would not be able to “fake it”. Unfortunately there are many countries in the world that would pose a risk for him. That breaks my heart, but it’s a fact.

Americans seem to be under the impression that they have some sort of immunity when traveling abroad. They think that if arrested, they will simply be able to call their embassy and be set free. Au contraire. All the embassy can or will do for you in the vast majority of cases is make sure your relatives are notified, deliver your mail, and give you the occasional red cross package. So the best thing to do is be aware of the laws of the country in which you travel, and strictly adhere to them. I’ve never found that to be particularly hard, but apparently some people do. If you plan to go somewhere with several kilos of cocaine taped to your inner thigh, well then, you deserve what you get.

So travel, yes, but do your homework first. Knowledge is power. Bon voyage.

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[Image credit: outlookmaps.com]

Home is Where?

I’m starting to settle in to Seattle. I’m beginning to sort of know my way around. I’ve figured out where a lot of the different neighborhoods are located. I know which grocery stores I prefer. I know when to avoid the interstate (which is pretty much all of the time). I have gotten my library card and my driver license. I’ve voted.

It still feels a little like a foreign country to me, though. Given the fact that I love to travel more than anything in the world, that’s a high compliment. But I often dress inappropriately for this weather. I don’t know how things work. I often feel like people are speaking a foreign language and I don’t quite get how things are supposed to be done. There comes a time in every trip when you long for home. I have those days.

But the fact is I have been feeling rather transient for the past 4 or 5 years. That’s not Seattle’s fault. I think selling my house was the defining moment. That’s when I pulled up anchor and started drifting. I like having a home I can call my own that I can alter or remodel or neglect as I see fit, without the worry of being evicted by anyone other than the bank.

I also like having a sense of community. I like having a group of friends and a church that I feel a part of, and a strong understanding of the local gossip, politics, insider jokes and slang. I enjoy having certain traditions that I hold every year, such as attending annual festivals. I definitely do not have any of that here yet.

I think home for me is ownership, knowledge, routine, tradition, and community. It’s fitting in. It’s feeling comfortable and anchored. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

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There’s no place like home.