Archive for the 'Stress' Category
Monday, February 16, 2009
In Patrick Symmes’ book Chasing Che, he refers to Lima, Peru, as The Scorch, a heaving South American capital city choked by people and pollution, whose oppressive heat and humidity is a constant companion to the arid landscape. It wasn’t a place we wanted to spend any time, but after our plans to fly to Bolivia were smashed to smithereens, an overnight stay was in order before we could catch a flight the next morning to Cusco. It was also where we would meet up with Maikael’s mom, Cecilia, who will spend the final month of our trip with us. We booked a cheap hotel near the airport and looked forward to catching up with Cecilia, who would arrive a few hours before us, before getting a good night’s rest. We were going to start Peru off on the right foot.
Getting to Cusco required four days of travel over three countries, involving four buses, three plane trips, three taxi rides, and hours of waiting in airports. By the time our plane touched down in Lima on day three, we were not fried but scorched. After clearing immigration, we spied my luggage spinning down the luggage carousel. “Yours will be probably be out any minute,” I said to Maikael. We watched as bags and suitcases were quickly plucked from the conveyor belt, and after thirty minutes, a small clutch of people without baggage remained. Something had obviously gone wrong with the transfer of luggage in Santiago. Maikael fought his way to the front of what appeared to be the Misplaced Luggage line, and was assured that more luggage from our flight had been located. Within minutes a heap of luggage was wheeled through a mysterious back door, which then reduced the group to three persons still awaiting luggage. Another flight from Santiago is arriving in five minutes, we were informed: not to worry.
An hour later, as the luggage from the final flight of the day whirred in lazy circles, every person’s baggage was claimed…except for Maikael’s. “Your luggage is lost,” I said with finality, believing that his bag had never made it off our final flight and was probably bound for New York, its next destination, at that moment. By the time the lost luggage form was filled out it was 1:30 am, although with the time change it felt like 3:30 am. We had arranged for a pick-up from our hotel, but since two and a half hours had passed since our flight landed, we assumed the taxi was long gone. After being shuffled through customs and deposited in the arrivals area, we were greeted by a mass of humanity holding hand-lettered name placards and touts screaming, “Taxi!” Maikael pushed through the bulging crowd, quickly confirming that our taxi had departed hours ago.
We had been warned to take an approved, pre-paid taxi from the airport, as kidnappings and violent assaults, especially at night, are not uncommon in Lima. Following the airport signs to the pre-paid taxi stand, we were informed that a 10-minute taxi ride would set us back $50 US, amounting to nearly half of our daily budget. Undoubtedly seeing the looks of appalled shock register on our faces, a cheaper option was proposed, this one, after an unsuccessful negotiation, costing $25 US. We knew a taxi should cost about $10. We knew we were being ripped off. But it was late, we were exhausted, and we were out of options.
After begrudgingly shelling over our cash, the dispatcher asked us our location. We knew the name of the hotel, but hadn’t thought to write down the address or the phone number, since we had arranged an airport pick-up. “Not a problem,” she assured us. We climbed in the taxi, and our driver immediately asked us the address, obviously having never heard of our hotel. Nevertheless, he confidently zoomed off towards what looked like a slightly dodgy area of town, the avenues lined with strip bars, fast food restaurants, casinos, and darkened buildings. Soon he slowed to a snail’s pace, straining to see the address. The he manuvered a complete U-turn, racing back towards the airport. “He has absolutely no idea where we’re going,” I whispered to Maikael across the back seat.
Numerous calls to dispatch revealed such helpful advice as, “It’s in San Martin, I think.” That’s like saying to someone in Seattle, “I think the hotel is located somewhere in the University District, but I don’t have a street address.” Maikael suggested stopping to ask a cop, a fellow taxi driver, a gas station attendant. “They never know anything,” he responded, assuredly. By now it was 2:30 am, and we had been driving around in the taxi nearly an hour. We were getting nowhere fast. Maikael had seen an Internet cafe open and suggested returning so that he could check his email and copy the address of the hotel from the confirmation we had received. By the time we returned to the cafe, it was closed.
Luckily, the Internet cafe was attached to a hotel, and the owner was kind enough to let Maikael check his email and make a phone call to the hotel, which revealed that Maikael’s mom was worried sick and had returned to the airport with the hotel’s driver to look for us. We set off towards the airport once again. Twenty-five dollars and an hour and a half later, we were exactly where we had started.
Within minutes we were reunited with Cecilia and the driver. Apparently, he had waited two and a half hours for us at the airport, and when we didn’t exit with the rest of the flight, the driver called the hotel. Everyone was convinced we had taken a gypsy taxi and been kidnapped, and Cecilia was ready to call the embassy. The driver returned to the hotel to pick up Cecilia at the same time we had exited customs. It was 4 am by the time we arrived back to the hotel, shelling out another $40 to the driver, who had spent his entire night at the airport. At a combined total of $65, our taxi rides cost more than our hotel room.
We awoke an hour and a half later, hoping to arrive at the airport to change our flight to an earlier time and check the status of Maikael’s luggage. We were shuttled back and forth between two ticketing counters and were finally issued a change moments before the flight boarded. The luggage was still MIA. By the time we arrived in Cusco, I was exceedingly tired and cranky. I wanted nothing more than to take a long nap, but we hadn’t booked a room in town. Having been warned, once again, to avoid unmarked taxis, we hired an “official” airport taxi to take us to a few places we had earmarked in our Lonely Planet guide. The result was an overpriced taxi ride and a hard sell to stay at one of the hotels he was obviously in cahoots with.
Four days after our journey began, we ended up at the very lovely Amaru Hostal in the San Blas neighborhood, offering sweeping views of the Sacred Valley. As our plane descended out of the clouds the Valley appeared below, an expansive swath of towering green hills which tumbled into even bigger valleys in the distance. It was exactly as I had always imagined, a tidy city cradled in the arms of a gentle green giant. Cusco was a terra cotta tongue that snaked through the valley floor, colored by the red tile roofs that dominate the city. Undoubtedly sensing our exhaustion, the hotel promptly produced a pot of mate tea to help revive us and ease our acclimation to the high altitude.
We set off on foot to explore the narrow warrens and cobblestone streets of Cusco, a city that was once the seat of the great Inca Empire. Although its buildings have long been stripped of the sheets of gold facades that once defined this city, grand stone walls and doorways remain. The town somersaults down the hillsides to the lovely Plaza de Armas, filled with flowers and lined by impressive churches, remnants of the Spanish invasion. Women dressed in traditional Andean garb pick their way through the streets, donning tall bowler hats and colorfully flouncy, knee-length skirts on top of thick knee socks. Even the old women’s hair is braided. Groups of mothers and daughters prop themselves on ancient stone steps, petting baby llamas and encouraging tourists to take photos (for a few nuevo soles, of course).
At the recommendation of our hotel we sought out El Granja Heidi, offering nuevo andino cuisine, a culinary style defined by a fusion of traditional Andean dishes with other cultures, or simply a modern twist. For 18 nuevo soles (about $5.50 US), we were treated to a three-course meal and a drink. I chose chica morada, a traditional Peruvian drink of fermented corn with an arresting purple color, tasting like a light mulled cider. Maikael chose a classic pisco sour, a perfectly frothy version dusted with cinnamon. The sopa de quinoa followed, an Andean grain with a cous cous-like consistency. The tender kernels floated in a delicately spiced broth with bits of Andean cheese binding the dish together. Next, a large, stone dish was presented, bearing perfectly-cooked rice, green salad, roasted beets, and cabbage curry, all fresh and expertly executed. A rustic pancake with local honey rounded out the meal. It was the healthiest lunch I’d had in months, a far cry from steaks and heaping bowls of pasta.
Dinner revealed more culinary treats, including perfectly steamed tamales and a traditional Pervian salad of diced tomatoes and gigantic corn kernels, studded with fresh fava beans and cubes of salty, local cheese. Fresh papaya and pineapple juice washed down spicy nuevo andino pizza, cooked in an outdoor clay oven. I was in heaven. It was 10 pm when we finished dinner, the final guests in the restaurant, world’s away from our midnight Argentine meals when things were just heating up at that hour. The streets were deserted as we made our way home through the chilly night air, the lights of Cusco twinkling in the distance. It was hard to believe that one of the worst days of our trip, only 24 hours earlier, was now a distant memory. That’s the thing about traveling: the worst memories are quickly wiped cleaned and replaced by something better. And there’s always something better just around the corner.6 comments
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Let me begin by saying that, in general, we’ve had really good luck with accommodations on this trip. Some of these places were discovered through concerted effort, others through dumb luck. The Fairy Chimney, our cave hotel in Cappadocia, was probably the coolest place we’ve ever stayed, and we never would have never found it without hours of complicated cross-checking between Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. Ubud Bungalows made our time in Bali truly memorable, and we ended up there because they were the only ones who responded to seven email inquiries I made just hours before we arrived in town. We were treated like family at the Jaipur Inn, which was a shot in the dark. Admittedly, we often spend entirely too much time selecting accommodations, but the end result has been that we haven’t stayed anywhere truly terrible, which I consider to be a minor miracle after six months of traveling.
But ever since we arrived in South America, our luck has hit a rough patch. Our unintended “homestay” in Easter Island was a rip-off; our reservation was mixed-up in Santiago; and things ended poorly in Mendoza. Our situation seemed to be looking up when we booked a room at Casa de los Angelitos in Buenos Aires, a graceful mansion in a residential neighborhood geared towards long-term travelers. We had air conditioning and excellent cable TV (read: I watched old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 at noon and 5 pm most days) in a quiet gable room. Our hosts were a kind, elderly couple, and we immediately formed relationships with the handful of other interesting guests, most of whom were also on extended travel and staying at the house more than a month, lending to an unhurried pace of life. It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was at Ubud Bungalows again, except Think Tank sessions in the pool were swapped for lazy afternoons of Argentine wine drinking on the patio. Life was sweet.
We were so happy with our situation, in fact, that within days of our arrival we decided we wanted to extend our stay from nine days to three weeks. Our room was booked by another guest for a seven-day period in the middle of that time, but we were invited to return afterwards for a second stay. We immediately snatched up the room and began planning a trip to Uruguay to fill the week, which lies only an hour from Buenos Aires by ferry. We purchased our expensive (and nonrefundable) tickets to Colonia on the Buquebus. Plans were made with our newfound friends for our jubilant return. It was the perfect idea.
As our last night approached, we were informed that a “clerical error” had been made, and that we would be shuffled out of our room a day early to another that lacked air conditioning. “No problem,” we said, “we can roll with the punches.” When the new guests arrived who were taking over “our” room, a young couple from Santa Barbara who were embarking on a three-month trip around South America, they expressed excitement at staying in Buenos Aires for the next two weeks. Maikael and I exchanged a nervous glance. We were returning to that same room in a week. Perhaps they were moving to another room? Maikael immediately approached the owner, who assured us that they were only confirmed for a week and that the room was definitely ours.
We relaxed, deciding we’d spend our last evening hanging out with our friends and finalizing our plans for Uruguay. For days we had been trying to make reservations, but no one was answering their phone. (Seriously: no one in the entire country answered their phone for two full days. Countless phone numbers also didn’t function, and most emails were returned as undeliverable.) At 8 pm the owner strolled by the table, leaned over to Maikael, and whispered, “There’s been a ‘modification’ to your reservation.” Maikael slinked off unnoticed, returning a few minutes later to pull me to our room. We had just been informed that, due to another “clerical error,” the couple had, indeed, confirmed their booking for two weeks back in August, having paid a deposit by Western Union, and therefore we were tough out of luck. Not only did we have no plans for Uruguay, a plan that had been sculpted out of necessity, but we had no idea where we’d stay when we returned to Buenos Aires. And our return to Buenos Aires was largely predicated on the fact that we wanted to keep the same pace of life we had grown to love at the Casa de los Angelitos. In short, we were screwed.
After scraping our jaws off the floor, shock turned to anger. We both love Latin America, but it was one of those moments where we looked at each other and said, “This would never happen in the US.” There tends to be a general lack of culpability in this culture, which is often a wonderful thing (frivolous law suits are nonexistent), but after something as simple as making a hotel reservation turned into a multi-day affair, we found ourselves at the end of our tether. In fact, our accommodation experiences were beginning to seem eerily reminiscent of fellow RTW traveler Jodi, who also experienced similar frustrations during her three-month stay in South America. Were we just victims of the craziness that we call Latin America? Were we being rigid North Americans, trying desperately to control our environment? Was there a lesson about enjoying an experience for what it is and letting it go when its time has expired? Was the universe conspiring against us? Or had we finally crashed and burned after so many months of endless planning?
Whatever the reason, we had just spent $300 in leather goods that day, having planned on leaving them at the Casa until our return a week later, and two heaping bags sat slumped in a corner of our room, staring at us. Panicked, we called Rene, Maikael’s mom’s friend who lives in the city and had offered his assistance if we needed it. We needed it. Not only did he volunteer to store our items for us, he insisted on helping us ship the items through the embassy mail. We hopped on the metro and made our way to Palermo, one of Buenos Aires’ swankiest neighborhoods, to Rene’s high-rise apartment. He was currently hosting friends of a friend from California and, despite the full house, offered us a place to stay for five days when we return from Uruguay on the 13th!
That night – the one night without air conditioning – was the end of the hottest day we had experienced in Buenos Aires. It was 1 am by the time we ate dinner and made it back to the Casa de los Angelitos, and the streets were still steamy. We were exhausted, but our room’s temperature soared towards 90 degrees. We tossed and turned, sweating through the sheets, still stewing about everything that had transpired. But we really couldn’t complain. We weren’t victims but recipients, once again, of the kindness of strangers.3 comments
Sunday, December 28, 2008
We had a really rough Christmas. I don’t wish to delve into details in such a public forum, but suffice it to say that the holidays ended with us leaving our arranged accommodations prematurely and feeling like a train had flattened us. As we scrambled to figure out how we would spend our last night in Mendoza before departing for Buenos Aires the next day, Maikael’s genius struck. “Let’s stay in the best hotel in town for a night,” he suggested. We quickly called the Park Hyatt Mendoza, determined it was too expensive, and booked a room anyway. Our peace of mind was on the line.
As it turned out, it was the best decision we had made in days. We trudged through the air conditioned lobby, sweating profusely as we maneuvered our massive backpacks through the throngs of chic clientele. The incongruity was not lost on us. “Are you hiking Aconcagua?” asked the bellman, referring to the snow-studded mountain peak outside of Mendoza and looking for a way to explain why two grungy backpacks slumped on his pristine luggage trolley. “No,” we said, simply. “We’re just checking in for a night.” A glittering Christmas tree dripping with twinkling stars stretched towards the soaring ceiling. My dusty sandals slapped against the cool marble tile as strains of Christmas music drifted overhead. I gazed longingly at the cerulean pool as our tired Mastercard was swiped. I was in heaven.
Our room didn’t disappoint. A quarry full of marble lined the bathroom, which boasted a trench-like bathtub and a rainforest shower. There was house-made grape-scented bath products, created to reflect the area’s viticultural heritage. A flat panel monitor aired a constant stream of American movie channels, a real treat after watching Los Simpsons in Spanish (let me assure you that Nelson doesn’t translate). There were plush robes and slippers and a petite card with a personalized weather forecast for the following day (in Celsius and Fahrenheit, no conversion calculation required!). There was real, functioning air conditioning. Even the drapes fastened together with Velcro so as to let nary an errant shaft of light invade on our perfect little oasis. It was the ideal place to recuperate.
After slipping under the downy sheets and cradling my head on a perfect pile of feathers, I enjoyed one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had on this trip. I was finally starting to feel better by the time I slunk into breakfast at 10:45 am. We took a seat under a clear blue sky on the veranda overlooking the picturesque Plaza de la Independencia; a shady umbrella dipped low overhead against the backdrop of the hotel’s perfect white facade. After being served cafe con leche by a Jonathan Rhys-Meyers look-alike, we were ushered into the breakfast buffet. As a matter of course I hate buffets, as they are usually an excuse to serve large quantities of low-quality food. But the buffet at the Park Hyatt Mendoza brought tears to my eyes. Delicate plates of pastries were arranged architecturally along a well-lit granite counter. My plate was transformed to a pile of golden medialunas, a distinctly Argentine croissant; brioche; hand-crafted chocolate muffins; and pain au chocolat. Large decanters of fresh-squeezed juice beckoned, including carrot and grapefruit. Sauteed pear tomatoes and perfect wedges of potatoes, kissed with a dollop of crème fraiche, sidled up to omlettes of perfection. Chards of cinnamon swam in an apple compote, as sweet chunks of fresh fruit teased me. I had died and gone to breakfast heaven.
We listened to an entire CD full of Christmas music, and happily listened again as it repeated itself after an hour. I heard more Christmas music in 90 minutes than I had in the past month, and rather than finding the whole thing cloying, I was completely charmed. After breakfast we sought refuge in the well-appointed spa and lounged by the leafy pool. Later in the afternoon we ordered a chicken sandwich, whose simple perfection nearly made me weep.
Our trip to Mendoza was nothing like we imagined. We must be the only people on the planet who somehow managed to spend 10 days in this famous wine growing region without visiting a single winery. The closest we got was an afternoon at The Vines, “South America’s first and only tasting room,” where we enjoyed a Malbec wine flight. I enjoyed the obvious creative writing at the hands of a clever marketer, who described the wines using the most colorful language I’ve ever witnessed at a tasting:
This wine sparkles in the glass with the color of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
The aromas will take you strolling through a rose garden.
The deep color of red bricks after a rainfall.
And my personal favorite: This wine is cherry cheesecake on fire.
As we boarded our luxury bus to Buenos Aires, where we would soon be treated to full meals, on-board movies, red wine which would taste nothing like cherry cheesecake on fire, fizzy champagne, and fully-reclining seats, I couldn’t help but feel mixed emotions. Those 24 hours at the Park Hyatt Mendoza had revived me; it was money well spent, the perfect — and only — Christmas gift to ourselves. Still, I couldn’t help but feel sad that Mendoza had turned out so different than I had expected, that I had turned my back on the place and sought comfort in the arms of a swanky hotel. As the city faded into the distance, I turned my gaze towards Buenos Aires, a new chapter.2 comments
Monday, November 24, 2008
Editor’s note: This blog post is dedicated to Mark Monda and Dave Bodette, the only real bicyclists I know.
Somehow, this idea wormed its way into my feeble brain: rent a bike and peddle your way through New Zealand wine country. In dissecting this decision, I can vaguely recollect when the seed was planted. Months ago I read a posting on the Lost Girls’ website, recounting their totally awesome experience cycling through sun-dappled fields in some New Zealand wine region. They made it sound idyllic and perfect, and I wanted a piece of the experience. I imagined a leisurely spin down quiet, dusty lanes, dipping in and out of boutique wineries as sheep smiled from green pastures. I would be reducing tipsy driving while enjoying beautiful countryside at my own pace, a win-win situation.
We hadn’t initially planned on exploring New Zealand wine country. Instead, we were banking on a hike in Tongariro National Park, which our Lonely Planet touted as “one of the best day walks in the world,” to the summit of The Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom. When gale-force winds and thick banks of clouds dumping bucket of rain quickly derailed our plans, we submitted to Plan B. Hawkes Bay, a well-known wine-growing region, was forecast to receive impeccable weather while the rest of the country was socked in.
Without much time to plan or research our bicycle tour, I employed a highly rational decision-making process: I chose the company with the cutest-sounding name. Reservations were made, and we were soon equipped with helmets, water bottles, maps, and, of course, mountain bikes. I was a little concerned when I studied the map and noticed that we would visit five wineries over 23 kilometers. It seemed like too much cycling and not enough drinking. But I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, focusing instead on the smiling sheep that would soon crowd themselves into my field of vision.
I hadn’t been on a bike in nearly 20 years. Once I started driving I never saw much need for a bike, and my parents eventually sold my teal Schwinn beauty at a garage sale. But you never forget to ride a bike, right? While true, I felt awfully wobbly and petrified as I took my first tentative peddles down the driveway. As a kid, I didn’t remember feeling preoccupied about falling off my bike, but now it took all my concentration and will to keep myself stable. We started down the road towards the first winery, which turned out to be not so much a road a busy thoroughfare. Within five minutes, my butt was aching intensely. “I don’t remember riding a bike being this painful,” I yelled to Tim, over the din of the traffic. “What?” he screamed back.
We pulled into the first winery, a commercial affair lacking charm, already working up a sweat. By the time we reached the second winery, heaving ourselves up the modest hill, I was exhausted. I didn’t understand how the gears on the bicycle worked, and as I madly rotated my hands on the gear shift, trying any conceivable combination, I found myself either peddling with the mania of a speed addict or the lethargy of a whale. We stumbled into the gorgeous Mission Estate property, the oldest winery in New Zealand, a converted church draped in lush, green vines. I should have been taking in the scenery, but all I could think about was the next winery, located at the top of what looked like a giant hill. “I’m tired,” I said. “How far have we come so far?” “About two kilometers,” said Tim.
After a long lunch on the white-washed veranda, where we dined on the best of local, seasonal cuisine, I felt fortified and ready to tackle the hill. Within minutes I was roasting in the midday sun, my helmet sitting askance on my drenched locks. Cars zoomed past us as we steadily made our way up the hill, with no more than a thin strip of pavement to call our own. I quickly gave up and began pushing the bike. “This isn’t what I had in mind for a bike tour through wine country,” I yelled over the rush of traffic. I kicked an empty, amber Tui beer bottle out of my path as my front tire crushed a soda can, forming a neat shape over the wheel. The gap between reality and imagination ever-widening, I soon grew upset, muttering a mantra that Tim rhythmically peddled to: “I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Where were the country lanes, the sheep, the wineries?
I soon began crying, and was sobbing by the time we reached the crest of the hill. Downhill seemed like it would be a breeze, but I soon found myself gripping the handlebars for dear life, panicked that my brakes would give way or that I would be hit by one of parade of cars careening past us at 100 kilometers per hour. Visions of open wounds studded with shards of gravel danced across my mind. I was completely rattled — literally and figuratively — by the time we reached Moana Park, the only boutique winery on the tour. We took a seat in the tasting room, ruby-red from sun and exhaustion. “On a bike tour, eh?” asked the cellar door manager.
We spent a lovely hour on a cushy stool at the winery, tippling a wide range of wines and learning about New Zealand’s burgeoning wine industry. While it still only produces a fraction of their Aussie neighbors (about .02% of the world’s total share), Hawkes Bay produces a wide range of lovely varieties, Martinborough is gaining ground with their pinot noirs, and the Marlborough region is renowned for their sauvignon blancs. We talked about the world’s changing viticultural landscape (France’s exports to the UK is dwindling), and had an all-around great chat. But the bike beckoned.
We nudged ourselves back on the seats, our butts aching more than ever. We found ourselves commenting on how plush the tasting rooms’ stools were. Anything felt better than that bike seat, which was akin to sitting astride a great two by four.
Within moments we were into the “stunning countryside” that the tour had promised. I saw sheep! And orchards! And vineyards! And pastures! Now this was a bike tour, I thought to myself. The sun gleamed through puffy white clouds as I glided down largely-deserted streets. But the moment didn’t last long. A large power plant loomed on my right, and within minutes the cars began their march back into my life. We rode down a bonafide freeway, and I was too terrified to even notice the stretches of green farmland flanking the road. “This wasn’t what I had in mind!” I yelled, about every two minutes, over the scream of traffic. We hoisted our bikes over a rustic stile so that we could cross over to…another freeway.
We breezed by the lavender farm and the chocolate factory, a slow blur as we cycled by. To borrow a Kiwi turn-of-phrase, I was totally knackered by the time we reached the fourth winery on our tour. I sniffed at the two dollar tasting, and rushed out to make the final winery of the day. It was closed by the time we made it, but it didn’t matter: I wanted nothing more than to get off these bikes for good, the sooner the better. But first we had to negotiate a narrow, one-way bridge. Maikael and Tim confidently peddled on, but I lagged behind, teetering, as an entire row of cars waited for me to cross. “Is there anyone else?” a woman in the line yelled to me from her car as I passed her. I just smiled and bobbed my head, too afraid to break my concentration with talking.
I slowed to a snail’s pace as we approached our destination, having nearly completed an entire loop of town. I was sunburned. My hands were raw. My butt ached. My legs screamed for mercy. It was then that I passed a young boy on a bike. “Don’t go so f&*%ing slow!” he yelled at me as I carefully negotiated around him. Kiwis are an extremely friendly and polite bunch of folks, and I was so shocked that I was left speechless. It was the cherry on top of a great sundae of a day.
When we returned our bikes, we were asked to sign their guestbook. I was miffed at the route they had planned. What kind of a wine tour goes through heavily-trafficked areas? I asked myself. But I realized my real problem laid squarely with heightened expectations, which has the ability to ruin almost any experience. It’s one of the demons I struggle with most, and it reared its ugly head all day. I seem to be incapable of experiencing something for what it is without letting ballooning expectations get in the way, and if I could overcome one thing on this trip that would translate to my everyday life, it would be learning to lower my expectations. And I was reminded, once again, that trying to simulate someone else’s successful travel experience always blows up in your face.
After a few moments of contemplation, I finally settled on a message for the guestbook. “A memorable day.”2 comments
Monday, November 10, 2008
In less than two hours I will begin a four-day, 30-mile hike into the wilds of New Zealand. Despite how ridiculous this sounds, it seemed like a sane – even fun – idea from the comforts of my living room last year. Rudyard Kipling made this stretch of trail famous by calling it, “The finest walk in the world.” But as the departure date has drawn closer, an overwhelming feeling of, “What the hell am I doing?” has cast a pall over my mind. My fellow RTW traveler, Jodi, did the trek last January, and was met with four days of crystal-clear skies. This is unusual: the Milford Track receives up to seven meters of rain a year, about 21 feet. You are repeatedly warned that the odds of encountering a day of rain on your trek, even in the middle of summer, is very good. In the promotional brochure there are photographs of smiling, grungy hikers wading through waist-deep water. (Why the advertisement isn’t filled with bronzed 20-somethings frolicking through sunny fields of wild flowers is a mystery to me.) Yet somehow I had deluded myself into thinking we were going to be met with Jodi’s incredible luck.
As we rolled into Te Anau yesterday, from where we’ll begin the trek, I watched towering banks of charcoal clouds roll over the jagged, snowy mountain peaks. When we checked in at the Department of Conversation’s visitor center yesterday to receive our passes, we read the forecast. Yesterday alone it rained about four inches, as much as New Mexico receives over the course of months, with more rain forecast over the next four days. “It even snowed last week,” said the parks staff said, cheerily. When we went to rent our equipment late in the day, I asked the owner if we really needed hat, gloves, and rain pants, to which she responded, flatly, “That’s basic safety equipment.” I wearily studied the neat rows of wet, mud-caked boots and wondered what sort of an outdoor adventure I was embarking upon. More importantly, I wondered why I had ever thought this was a good idea in the first place. It doesn’t boil down to badges of honor or bragging rights. Like this trip itself, it’s an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone. I am not an outdoorsy person by nature. Maikael has the corner on that market, as does our friend Tim, who is traveling with us throughout New Zealand the next three weeks. As I shrugged on my pack last night, brimming with four days of food and countless pairs of wool socks, I asked myself again why I was doing this. I have to trust that there is something to what ol’ Rudyard said, that there is magic in the woods.
It also doesn’t hurt that we awoke to clear, blue skies this morning.1 comment
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Today we hit the double digit mark: we’ve been on the road for 100 days, which seems somehow momentous. Just as presidents give an update after their first 100 days in office, we’ve decided to give our own “state of the union” address. How are we faring? What have we learned? What have been our favorite and least favorite parts of the trip? How will our lives be different when we return?
Surprisingly, Maikael and I share many of the same favorite experiences. We both loved Portugal’s Douro Valley and Turkey’s Cappadocia, places we plan on returning someday soon. Maikael was captivated by Pamukkale and the Bedouin camp we stayed at in Jordan. We both enjoyed Bhutan; Maikael for the hikes to cliffside monasteries, and me for the cultural aspects. The place I have felt most alive is Bali; we both agree that the highlight of that experience was the Ubud Bungalows Think Tank. Maikael resonates most with Australia. But the most memorable aspect hasn’t been the sights but the people we’ve met by chance along the way. Maikael put it best when he said that, from these people, we’ve been given the gift of exposure to the multitude of ways in which one can live their life.
We are very fortunate that nothing calamitous has happened: we still have our passports, our money, and our bags (insert knocking on wood here). There hasn’t been a single worst experience, but we hit our lowest point in India, when everything just felt too difficult. Another tough aspect of the trip has been the ongoing stress and worry. Contrary to popular belief, we are not living a Carnival Cruise commercial. Juggling our household, ongoing trip planning, website, and Maikael’s career has been more difficult than we could have imagined. It’s hard not to bicker when you’re tired and constantly adjusting to new things. We’re doing our best and learning not to be too hard on ourselves, or each other.
We’ve both learned a tremendous amount about the act and art of traveling, and will never travel in the same way again. We both agree that seeing less usually amounts to a richer experience. We are learning to take a proposed itinerary in the Lonely Planet and cut it in half for the time allotted. I’ve learned that I’m quite content doing nothing: if I can eat good food and meet interesting people, I’m genuinely happy. (Belgium is next on my list after meeting a lovely Belgian couple in Bali who told me that there are French fry “huts” on every block.) I could do without long, crazy, hot hikes. Packing light is not only doable, it’s preferable. We’ve both become braver and more assertive through this process. I would no longer hesitate to travel to a non-English-speaking country: while it’s a challenge, it’s very achievable. I know how to travel smarter (always know when your major holidays fall). I’ve learned that tuning into my intuition rarely fails me. Most importantly, I’ve learned that travel, like life, is a personal experience. I take recommendations of places to see and things to do with a grain of salt, because how another person experienced it is bound to be different than my own.
And what have we learned about ourselves? How will our lives be different when we return? We both feel a willingness and confidence to try new things – that bathroom remodel we’ve been dreading for years seems like no big deal after buying train tickets in India. Maikael and I have also come to realize how much our lives had become dictated by habit and routine. In many cases, we spent our time unwittingly doing things that we didn’t even really like. I doubt we will resume our subscription to cable TV after we return home. We would both like to be more intentional in how we shape our careers and our free time. I would like to start some new endeavors and get into the best shape of my life, starting yoga or another spiritual practice. I’d also like to get back to the things that used to make me happy: taking dance classes, singing, performing. My creative self desperately needs to be rekindled.
At the end of the day, we are generally happy and healthy. We have higher highs and lower lows than we are accustomed to in our everyday lives, but we are never, ever bored.3 comments