The Travel Bug (ewwwww!)

The question which comes up most frequently when traveling is “why?” Why do you do it?  What – or who – gave you the “travel bug?”

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Sure, my parents took us on road trips – a tradition for many families in the 1970s it seems – to places like Mount Rushmore or the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, but that wasn’t it. While I have fond memories of those journeys, none of them made me think “wow, I want to do this some more.”

Maybe I was too young, or maybe sharing bonding moments with my siblings was more important.  As always, it is the small moments from those days which stick in my memory: riding giant tortoises at some so-called “zoo” in South Dakota, stopping in the middle of the Badlands – just pulling off the road – so we could use the strange rock formations as slides (I ruined a pair of pants); my brother accidentally knocking my eyeglasses off my face at the top of the roller coaster (instead of ending a couple hundred feet down, they miraculously landed in the lap of the person seated behind us).

So what was it that infected me with wanderlust? It was another small moment: the arrival of the U.S. mail. It was sometime in the late 1970s, and my father’s latest issue of “National Geographic” had arrived and there, in full color glory on the cover, was Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel in Peru, re-discovered by explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. I said to myself “Cool! What’s that? Must go see!”

(I searched the internet for that magazine cover, only to repeatedly run afoul of National Geographic’s requirement that I sign up for a free account and let them post to my Facebook friends on my behalf. I don’t appreciate websites which force such things upon me, especially when I’m providing what amounts to free advertising on their behalf. Hear that Nat Geo?)

It took many years for me to eventually make my way to that Peruvian mountaintop and, yes, the catalyst of 9/11. Many people took that tragedy as a sign they should do those “one of these days” things they’d been postponing: get married, go back to school, take a dream vacation, etc. I was in the latter group. In the years preceding 9/11, I had received several brochures from Lindblad Expeditions advertising a cruise to the Galapagos Islands – with a side excursion to Machu Picchu. I would always toss out the old one, file away the new one, and say “one of these days.”

Soon after, it really was one of those days, and I was taking what everyone calls the ‘postcard picture’ of the Inca ruins with Huayna Picchu, its sister peak, in the background, similar to what graced the magazine cover back in the 1970s. It was everything I had hoped for, well, except for later dropping my camera two meters down the side of Huayna Picchu. The sound of breaking glass is not what you want to hear from your camera. (Thankfully, the film roll was safe in my pocket.) Here’s a tip: when you’re sitting on the top of a mountain, make sure you actually have the camera strap in your hand when you stand up.

You might say I didn’t quite follow the right path to Machu Picchu. After all, it wasn’t a National Geographic tour group. Lindblad, however, led my footsteps back in that direction when they formed a partnership with Nat Geo in 2004. So I came full circle without even trying. (No, I didn’t get to ride the giant tortoises in Galapagos. It’s illegal.) Although, I suppose to truly come full circle, I should invite my father to join me in a return to Machu Picchu – if he could ever be distracted away from Europe.  After all, it was his magazine subscription, so my catching the travel bug is all his fault.

Now I just have to figure out who infected me with the writing bug.

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Friends: Old, New…and Lost

Traveling isn’t just about the local people you meet, the tour guides, the shop keepers, taxi drivers, the woman on the street corner selling you baskets, or the kind shop owner who serves you tea. If’s about your fellow countrymen whom you may encounter along the way or, if you’re traveling in a tour group, your fellow group members. It’s about the things you share: curiosity about the world, appreciation for learning new things, or excitement upon jointly experiencing a unique event.

From the small moments of “Hey – I’m from that city too!” when the girls behind me in line at the Heathrow airport overhear the Customs agent remark upon the birthplace listed on my passport, to the camaraderie which develops after many days of togetherness.

There were the palpable feelings of satisfaction and happiness emanating from every person standing on the deck of the National Geographic Endeavor as a wild polar bear trundled away after spending an hour studying us from the Norwegian ice floes surrounding our ship.  Or the admiration showered upon the lucky photographers who captured the moments of our only Orca encounter in Antarctica, and their willingness to share their photos and videos. And, speaking of photos, there are those thoughtful individuals who don’t miss the opportunity to snap some shots of others because they know that everyone appreciates pictures of themselves, especially ones they can use to re-create that experience back home for their friends and family.

Then there are the “it’s a small world moments” (like the Heathrow encounter): the time I walked into my veterinarian’s office two months after returning from the Galapagos Islands only to recognize the man standing next to me at the reception desk as a fellow passenger on that cruise. Or traveling all the way to the Seychelles Islands (in the Indian Ocean, 1400 miles off the coast of Tanzania) and learning that the woman I’m eating dinner with lives in my city, only a mile away.

But most importantly, it’s the aggregate of moments which make you realize how much you like the person trudging next to you across a glacier or lava field, how much you admire them, or simply how interesting you find them. Maybe they have a really cool job back home, maybe they’ve been to places you’ve only dreamed of going, maybe they’re really skilled at something you hope to learn yourself. Heck, maybe they not only surprise you, but put you to shame (though not a bad way), like Skip, who, at the age of 80, was the only group member walking up the stairs in the Dubai airport while the rest of us – all younger – were exhaustedly drooping over the railings of the escalator.

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Or maybe they’re just really nice, like Corrie, a warm, welcoming 70-year-old retired music teacher I met in Antarctica. I couldn’t help but like Corrie, who could? Despite being on crutches due to what she believed to be a sprained hip, and missing out on many ship activities, the smile never left her face and she never complained, even when she was obviously in pain. She was just happy to be there. She had an energy, an enthusiasm, which was contagious.

It was those qualities that Corrie exuded which made it so disappointing, so upsetting, despite having known her for only twenty days, to learn that it was not a sprain which plagued her, but a tumor in her hip joint, and myeloma eating away at her bone marrow.

The doctors said they could heal her. It would take time, of course, but they had confidence she would be back on her feet in a year or so, and able to continue her world travels. Until late summer, that is. The myeloma returned, much more aggressive than before, and a prognosis of complete recovery changed to six to nine months survival, to – heartbreakingly – six to nine days when she took a sudden turn for the worse. Corrie passed away on August 25th.

As sad as that made me, I’m glad I met her. I’m glad I took the opportunity to snap some “action” shots of Corrie in one of her rare outings on a zodiac ride to share with her and her sister (who had accompanied her on the trip) and, ultimately, with those who attended her memorial service. I was flattered to hear that one of the photos I had taken was chosen for the slideshow played for the attendees. She will remain one of my lasting memories of the Frozen Continent.

I hope that I will meet more people like her, whether it’s complete strangers I’m encountering for the first time, or friends and relatives I’m traveling with for the umpteenth time while learning new things about them, meeting them all over again.

Fear in the Far Places

In last week’s post, I wrote about traveling solo, something which intimidates a lot of people who are otherwise quite outgoing in different aspects of their lives. While I always encourage people to step outside their comfort zones, I will never judge negatively anyone who won’t or can’t, especially when it comes to travel. There will always be legitimate reasons a person is too afraid, or nervous, to travel to a dream destination. The current volatile state of world affairs being first and foremost. Heck, I’m the first person who will admit that it’s not always wise to travel to a particular country. (I often joke that someday – far, far in the future – my tombstone will end up reading “Brave, but stupid.” but that doesn’t mean I want that to come true.) So I plan my travels with the right amount ot caution, the right amount of respect for those I might impact, whether it be those I encounter while traveling or the loved ones waiting for me back home.

Still, I must say in reality, the world is not always as dangerous as the media wants us to believe, a tactic they employ for sensationalism and ratings. The majority of people all over this planet are kind, helpful, generous, and curious, and they eagerly welcome the adventurous, especially those open-minded individuals whose goal it is to experience their way of life, their culture, and their history. Even in countries that hate “America.” (They still love Americans, although it can often be for your tourist dollars rather than your sparkling personality.)

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LIke the old woman in the bathroom at the Cairo Airport back in 2002. It was my first encounter where, in many places, the elderly or poor will appoint themselves as bathroom attendants, handing out towels and toilet paper in exchange for a few coins. I remember how her eyes lit up at the handful of British currency I pulled from my pocket (acquired during my layover at Heathrow). Even though the total was probably a lot more than the average tourist gave her, she was so happy to see it, I dumped all the coins into her eager hands.

And, of course, there were all those shop keepers eager to sell me any number of trinkets.

But then there were the teenage school girls on the Cairo Metro who surrounded me and, via the only girl who spoke some English, proceeded to ask me where I was from and (a question which seems to arise primarily in the Middle East) if I was married. I wasn’t, but I had thought it wise – traveling solo to Egypt – to wear a plain wedding band. I still remember the laugh of the old woman sitting on the floor after a translation of my answer to the question “was my husband pretty in face?” (handsome). I said “I think he is.”

And I still remember the girls, sensing my concern about missing my stop (they had surrounded me so completely I couldn’t see the names of the stations we were at), and how they made sure I got off the train at the right place.

Those are the moments which show me that other people – complete strangers – care, the moments which humanize the “other” that we in America seem to be so afraid of.

Yes, being surrounded like that made me nervous, but the girls were so warm and curious, I quickly lost any fear. I found myself wrapped up in our “conversation.” I use quotation marks on that word because it was only a partially successful exchange due to the language barrier. For example, I’m not sure they understood my explanation of where California is, but they knew “Hollywood” and that was close enough.

Given the current turmoil in Egypt, I wonder how those girls are. Happy? Facing their own fears? Married to their own husbands who are “pretty in face”?  Are they alive?

I will not go back to find out, however. At least not any time soon. Egypt is simply too unstable. And even I’m not brave enough to face that. Instead, I will have to find a way to memorialize them by somehow incorporating those encounters into one of my stories.  I haven’t yet, but I’m sure they will show up some day when my readers least expect it.

In the meantime, there are so many other Far Places on this gorgeous planet to visit, so many other ways to encounter, and conquer, new fears.

Trusting Yourself

I’ve been asked on several occasions if I’m scared to travel alone. And the answer has always been no.

Sometimes I ask myself why.

After all, it can be a big, scary world out there, full of violence and greed.

I think it comes down to trust. Not trusting others necessarily, and certainly not blindly trusting, of course.  Clearly there are people out there who don’t deserve your trust and never will.

I’m talking about trusting yourself, your own instincts. Trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to alter your plans whether it’s something as simple as walking down a different street or politely excusing yourself from an invitation which makes you feel uncomfortable, or something more drastic like seeking help from your embassy.

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Such self-confidence may come naturally to some people, but for others it can take years to cultivate. People like me, who as a child were timid and socially awkward. In such cases, one must put on a pretense of bravery and step out into the world. Small steps, like traveling to foreign locales where you’ll be meeting up with friends or relatives, is a good start. Finding a reliable tour company which treats solo travelers as well as they do others is another. In the latter instance, there are always other solo travelers within the group to pal around with. Many of these will be fleeting friends, like-minded individuals in the moment, whom you’ll never see again. A few, however, you’ll form a closer bond with and become lasting friends.  Some, you will discover are just like you: taking their fear and shoving it deep inside because they refuse to allow it to keep them from following their dreams, from exploring the far corners of this beautiful planet.

I recently encountered a woman I had not seen in several years. We’d never been friends, but had known each other for some time before she moved elsewhere. She’s a few years older than myself, and she had always seemed to be much more confident and socially adept than me. While that may still be true in many settings, I found it quite surprising when she admitted she found it too scary to travel alone.

The conversation made me reflect upon the differences between us, and I couldn’t really find many. The only conclusion that I could come to was that I had finally grown into myself. I’m not saying that she hasn’t – in whatever ways matter to her. But I, in the last ten-fifteen years, have truly grown into my self-confidence and self-trust, especially when it comes to my desire to travel.

Which is why I felt no fear back in July while I stood at the edge of a 400-foot cliff in Bandelier National Monument taking photographs of a waterfall across Frijoles Canyon. I had hiked the 1.5 miles up to this vantage point, alone, on a trail that was technically closed. I had found places to jump across the creek where a flash flood just days earlier had wiped out the three footbridges. (Not an easy task for someone with short little legs like mine.) I had climbed over debris left behind by the flood and kept a watch out for wildlife.

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Admittedly, New Mexico is not so far away as the exotic locales that are my usual destinations. But when deep inside a canyon, with nary another soul in sight and not even the hint of a cell phone signal, it can feel further away than standing on the Antarctic Peninsula where a cruise ship awaits just offshore.

Anything could have happened to me: I could have fallen off the trail and died, or been seriously injured. I could even have been attacked by a mountain lion. Who knows when I would have been found? Being a closed trail, getting later in the afternoon, no one else was coming that way. Yes, the park rangers knew I was out there and knew my estimated return time, but when minutes may count: blood loss, shock, etc., I could have found myself in serious trouble.

But I knew I wouldn’t. I trusted my feet, trusted my balance, trusted my agility, and I trusted my reflexes. I was ready to grab whatever rocks or sticks needed to fight off a big angry feline. Heck, if other people can fight off a mountain lion by hitting it with their camera, so can I.

That’s what trust is. And learning to trust yourself so implicitly is perhaps, for some, as far as traveling to the ends of the earth.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part III)

The best vacations never leave you. The sights, the sounds, and the emotions stay with you forever, laying dormant in your mind until they rise to the surface with even the slightest of urgings. From glancing at a photograph or hearing a penguin honk on t.v. or listening to a song, it can take only a second for unbidden memories to rise. In the most unlikely of places, even the deserts of New Mexico, Antarctica can live again.

It was just after dawn, and I had slipped into the steaming hot pool on the patio of my room at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. Not wanting to disturb any other guests who might also be enjoying the cool morning air, I turned on my trusty 3rd generation iPod Nano – which has now been to five continents with me – and let it shuffle through songs at a low volume. But after a few minutes, the tunes weren’t fitting my mood. So I scrolled through the playlists, not looking for anything in particular, until I came upon Franti’s song again.

I leaned my head back and, yes, turned up the volume a bit, tapping out the beat with my feet on the opposite wall of the small pool.  It wasn’t dancing, not really, but close enough. As the ripples in the water, caused by my movements, washed over my legs, I imagined myself back aboard ship, listening to the faint slap of the waves against Explorer’s hull. And I remembered the emotional turmoil, the tug-of-war I had felt between despair and hope.

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Not all the lyrics in “Hey, Hey, Hey” speak of hope. They question death, guns, Wall Street greed. As the song reached the line “Until the morning comes again, I will remain with you my friend, and we will ride into the sun…” my thoughts naturally drifted back to Turtle. It’s been seven months since I lost her, but I still miss the feisty feline. Being winter when she died, around 6 am, we didn’t quite make it until dawn, but I did stay with my friend, and even if she did not see the sun again, I did. I held her there, on my chest, her now motionless head under my chin, until after dawn before taking her on her final journey.

With the sun rising higher in the New Mexico sky, I knew it would soon be time to go home to California. My next dawn would find me awakening to the plaintive meows of my other three cats. As much as my heart aches for Turtle, and for other cats lost before her, it is now my duty to take care of those cats still here. My job, my pleasure, to love them, cuddle them, give belly rubs, rest my cheek against them while listening to purrs, and clapping my hands and saying “no, no, bad cat”…..  And, yes, to dance with them when I’m in a silly mood, even if it annoys the hell out of them.