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Posts Tagged ‘travel essays’

Last night, while reading David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I came across his essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” a travel essay about the Netherlands’ version of the Santa Claus story. Not only was it hilarious, it was the best piece of travel writing I’ve read in a while. I think travel writers can get too bogged down in the magnitude of their experiences and they forget that the most interesting stories about their time abroad can be the conversation they had with a local on their walk to the train station. It’s important to keep in mind that most of an individual’s travel experience is a very personal experience and not everything is going to resonate with an audience in the same way it did with the traveler. Rather than wax poetic about his experience admiring The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, Sedaris selects an incident from his travels that conveys the real value and rewards of travel.

Firearms aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-riki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.” (Sedaris, 158)

[On the difference between American and Dutch Christmas stories…] “We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just preten ot kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution—so what’s not to love about being Dutch?” (Sedaris, 163)

–Sedaris, David. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. New York: Back Bay, 2005.

Click here to listen to Sedaris narrating the full essay which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine.

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(–title from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78”)

Before I left for what would be my third trip to O’ahu, I read Susanna Moore’s book (one part historical summary, one part memoir) about the islands, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. Moore’s chapters about her own experience growing up in Hawai’i in the decades after World War II were full of vivid imagery of the islands and its people as well as potent scenes of childhood that often sounded familiar. I imagined my own Tybee Island plus the addition of proud, Polynesian locals—a tropical paradise, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Bali Hai meets the back-river… Unfortunately when I got to O’ahu I realized that things had changed drastically over the past fifty years…

My boyfriend and I stayed at the Park Shore Hotel at the end of the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue. Our room’s balcony had views of Malama Bay, Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and Queen Kapiolani Regional Park. In the mornings when we sat on our balcony with our backs to the rest of Waikiki, we could see the flamingos over at the Honolulu Zoo and hear the monk seals barking at the aquarium. The beach across the street from our hotel had about a tenth of the population of the more popular beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki’s center, and it made the place seem almost peaceful. If we had spent all of our days sunning on that beach or snorkeling in the immediate waters of the bay (of which we did plenty), and had neither curiosity, nor the need to eat, we may never have discovered the proper tourist catastrophe that is Waikiki Beach.

{Scott snorkeling}

{Scott’s snorkeling pictures}

{the Waikiki Aquarium}

{my favorites were the giant clams!}

At first, walking along Kalakaua or Kuhio Avenues is simultaneously overwhelming and disappointing. My own understanding of “the myth of Hawai’i”, inspired mostly by historical accounts of Hawai’i or 50’s and 60’s films that take place there, set me up for my disappointment. Reading Moore’s book and the first three chapters of Michener’s Hawaii didn’t help either.

Being among the people of Waikiki is the equivalent of sinking your arm into a barrel of cast-off, carnival prizes. A single block will invariably contain a combination of beefy American and glittering Japanese tourists, raggedy locals, and the ever-present homeless. At night this assortment is additionally peppered with over-eager street-performers, six-foot-tall prostitutes, and peddlers of hemp jewelry, woven palm-leaf hats and baskets, painting prints, and plumeria leis. It is not so far a stretch to consider Waikiki a modern-day Tortuga—something only the presence of a handful of five-star hotels attempt to defy. The final product is at first abrasive and appalling, but once you are willing to accept it for what it is, the experience becomes vastly amusing and even a little charming—you know, in a seedy kind of way…

{I love Scott’s double-exposure night-time shots of palm trees and the ocean}

{amazing octopus bracelet in a jewelry shop on the first floor of the Outrigger Hotel}

For dinner our first night, my boyfriend and I went to the famous Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant on the first floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel. (It’s extremely touristy, but the low-lighting atmosphere helps alleviate the feeling of being too much in a crowd). We had been there the year before—I had ordered the Crab and Macadamia Nut Wontons, which were surprisingly bland, and my boyfriend had had the Kona Style Grilled Filet (which the kitchen had some trouble getting to be medium-rare…), while the salad bar had been mostly edible but uninteresting. The reason we even went back this time was to have some of what the restaurant is truly, and rightfully, famous for: the Kimo’s Original Hula Pie—a reason in itself to go to Duke’s when you’re in Hawai’i.  (I particularly got a kick out of the caption beneath the listing of the “hula pie” on the menu: “This is what the sailors swam ashore for in Lahaina”.)

The rest of the week we had some trouble finding good restaurants, and were so unlucky as to have absolutely zero good experiences with any truly “Hawaiian”-inspired dishes. The tourist industry has thoroughly corrupted. We did however find a decent Italian place and a great Vietnamese place. The Italian place made a fine risotto and had a small but good wine selection, and the Vietnamese place was one of the best I’ve ever been to outside of Vietnam. I’m sure there has to be some great restaurants in and around Honolulu; I suppose we just guessed wrong during the week we were there…

{the best meal we had in Waikiki: at Pho Old Saigon}

On our second-to-last day we drove around the east and north coasts of the island, taking a combination of back-roads and highways until we got to Kamehameha Highway which took us along the coast up around to the North Shore. This drive put all the contradictions of the island into sharp focus. One minute we’re driving past white, sandy beaches and water so blue and clear I can see sea turtles bobbing in the surf, and the next we’re passing village communities made up of trailers and tin-roofed shanties surrounding by weed-choked, chain-link fencing. Fragrant forests full of tall, silver-barked trees give way to ancient, rolling lava-fields hemmed in by jagged cliff-faces, and around the bend is a row of hedge-hidden, multi-million dollar mansions lining some beach long out of sight. The villages all had Hawaiian names, the gated communities did not. And in my mind, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78″—a lament for the land and its people (“…and saw highways on their sacred grounds…”)—played over and over again…

On the North Shore we passed through another very touristy, but less overwhelming and rather cute area called Haleiwa—this did remind me a little bit of Tybee. There we stopped at a restaurant called Haleiwa Joe’s for late afternoon macadamia nut ice-cream sundaes and a Keoki coffee (coffee with Kahlua, dark creme de cacao and brandy). Apparently Haleiwa is a popular surfer’s destination and “cultural hub” of the North Shore. I glimpsed a lot of interesting- and cute-looking shops and restaurants that I’d like to explore. I think if we go back to O’ahu—though I’d much rather explore the other islands—we’d try to stay in Haleiwa instead of near Honolulu.

{ordering ice cream and coffee at Haleiwa Joe’s}

In her book, Susanna Moore makes an observation about the nature of even the 1960’s Hawaiian tourist that was the beginning of the bastardization of Hawaiian culture that the tourist industry on O’ahu is today:

I sometimes worried about the tourists. I did not understand why they had come so far, excluded as they were from the secret and mythical world that I knew, and I was made anxious by the ease with which they were satisfied—a boat ride around Pearl Harbor to look at the sunken warships and the Kodak Hula Show with dancers in cellophane skirts seemed to suffice. It was the first time that I was to be confused by the difference between what people were willing to accept and what more there was for the taking.” (126)

I have to believe there is more to Hawaiian culture and tourism than raggedy, stoned surfers and Germaine’s Luau. Since trips to Hawai’i seem to have become an annual tradition for my boyfriend and me, I am determined to do a more in-depth exploration of my country’s 50th state and its rich Polynesian heritage during my trips from now-on, likely leaving Waikiki alone.

*   *   *

Links to sites or addresses for places and things mentioned in this article, as well as other things I did or recommend to do on O’ahu…

I Myself Have Seen It, Susanna Moore—you can probably skip the first 120 pages though; also her bibliography is a good place to find extra reading on Hawai’i—I especially want to check out Jack London’s Tales of Hawai’i and David W. Forbe’s Encounters with Paradise

Hawaii, James A. Michener—epic, sometimes slow, but always great novel—classic Michener…

Park Shore Hotel—3-star hotel, reasonable prices and excellent location… you know, if you insist on staying in Waikiki…

Diamond Head

Honolulu Zoo

Waikiki Aquarium—pretty cool to visit before or after snorkeling in the Hawaiian waters and seeing the wildlife first-hand—my favorites are the giant clams…

Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant and Bar, Waikiki—tourist hot-spot, popular night-spot–go for the hula pie!

Bene Pesce—2310 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2288—enjoyable Italian food in a calm, bistro-style restaurant…

Pho Old Saigon—2270 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2668—delicious and authentic Vietnamese food…

88 Tees—2168 Kalakaua Avenue; 808.922.8832—Vintage shop with fun, cheap to moderately priced clothing at a huge variety…

Muse by Rimo—2310 Kuhio Avenue Suite #127; 808.926.9777—Cute, bohemian boutique store…

Haleiwa—popular surf town on the North Shore…

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole—iconic Hawaiian musician…

Haleiwa Joe’s—restaurant on the North Shore…

Dole Plantation

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban; all editing done by Kelly.]

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–response to a post by Suzy Guese

Check out this post by Suzy on her blog about the frustrations of the sometimes necessary, lengthy gap between travels.

This two-month span starting July 5th will be the longest I’ve gone without traveling somewhere all year. I think an important part of being a good traveler is balancing, not necessarily travel time vs. home time, but travel pleasures vs. home pleasures, and learning how to be just as happy at home as one is when one is traveling. This way traveling doesn’t turn into a form of escapism, and you don’t dread spending long stretches of time at home when work and financial strains or family time beckon. While a deep-seated and positive philosophy is an important part of success here, there are lots of little things you can do too to keep your spirits up.

Suzy’s post on the power of smells is the first clue about one thing you can do. When you’re traveling, pay attention to the smells around you, then pick up perfumes, candles, lotions, fresh flowers etc. that remind you of your favorite places to make a part of your home. But don’t stop at florals and body- and home- scents, food is also a powerful transporter. Take note of recipes and favorite dishes you experience abroad to recreate in your own kitchen. Scott and I will even bring or ship home wine, coffee, spices, and sauces we find and fall in love with overseas.

Don’t alienate whatever it is you love about traveling and your experiences abroad to the other side of the airplane flight-path. I always bring home souvenirs from abroad to scatter around my apartment, such as coffee-mugs, throw-pillows, coasters, even furniture, etc., and incorporate the elements of my travels that bring me the most joy into my every day home-life.

Another thing I like to do is take mini-trips an hour or two outside the city or even within the city-limits. There are a lot of really great places right around where I live, the wonders of which I haven’t even remotely begun to explore. Whenever I feel particularly cabin-feverish, I search for a nearby vineyard, national park, historic town, even a museum or restaurant in my own city I haven’t visited or tried before. (Also good for exercises for travel-writers in order to keep their observation, writing, & photography skills tightly honed during their “time off”). Having these close-to-home favorite places to fall back on when the dates between plane tickets feels particularly stretched, makes the pain of the distance from your favorite Italian pizzeria in Naples or confitería in Buenos Aires seem a little less keen.

So keep on with your happy travels, those here at home and afar!

[Images from weheartit and the decorista.]

[Inspiration for post from Suzy Guese’s inspiring & informative travel blog.]

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Three Days on the Western Cape

I had not followed any of the FIFA Soccer World Cup held in South Africa in 2010, had studied Nelson Mandela in School, and seen a documentary about the flying sharks in False Bay off of the Western Cape. That was all I knew about South Africa before I stepped on the Airbus 340 to Frankfurt to catch my connecting flight to Cape Town.

§Take United flight 932 from Washington DC to Frankfurt and connect to Lufthansa flight 576 to Cape Town.

My boyfriend—Scott—and I had booked the trip back in December when a low fare from Washington DC—about $1050 on a non-upgradeable, economy-class ticket—popped up for Lufthansa Airlines. Before we found the fare, we hadn’t thought much about visiting South Africa. “Well, what’s it like?” I had asked Scott. “Kind of like Australia, actually.” He had said. I was skeptical. “I mean any place is a lot like another,” he elaborated. “The world is settled, civilized, occupied. The difference is in language, geography—and even there you can whittle out the similarities.” He flipped through my passport to make sure I had enough empty pages left. “I mean, you can’t really ask questions like that,” he said, sliding the little blue book back into my travel wallet, “even when you’re there and can answer them yourself. A place is a place. People are people. You just have to go see for yourself.” So that’s what we did.

We arrive at Cape Town International Airport on a Monday afternoon in March. Leaving the airport, we drive by a township on our way in to the city. The colorful, square, tin and plywood houses pixilate the rolling countryside. I peek down each sandy alleyway as we fly by on the N1 into a kaleidoscope world of soccer balls, skinny dogs, and rusted water barrels. A young man, possibly in his early twenties, sits on the roof of one of the houses, with his feet pressed to the top of the surrounding fence. He looks off towards the city. He is dressed in black suit pants, and a crisp, white-collared shirt creates a sharp border between his charcoal sweater and the smooth darkness of his handsome face. A large field stretches beyond the last row of houses. It is clear of debris. Half a dozen groups of uniformed, youth soccer teams are gathered in huddles around their coaches, juggling, or running sprints across the parched and dusty grass.

I lean back into the car, surprised at the feeling of nostalgia, persistent in the back of my throat. How can a foreigner, who, by the very definition, is alien to place and culture, find something with which to identify so deeply after barely an hour in a new country? Why is my first experience of Cape Town not one of an encounter with the exotic, but a scene that evokes memories of my own childhood on a soccer field back home in the United States? People are people, Scott had said. Is that what he meant?

After dropping our things off at The Big Blue hostel by the waterfront, Scott and I head to the beach to relax and plan out the rest of our stay. The surf at Camps Bay is violent and chaotic, constantly crashing over the deposits of eroded granite that have scattered themselves less than half a kilometer out from the sandy beaches. The first geyser-like burst into the air in the middle of the sea sends my heart racing, and I am convinced I’ve just seen a whale. After a few minutes I realize my mistake as another swell meets one of these submerged granite boulders and sends its spray a dozen feet into the air. Disappointed, I plop back down onto the towel we’ve spread out beside a placid tidal pool. Scott and I begin to flip through the handful of brochures we took from the check-in desk and talk about how we want to structure our trip.

When you travel the way Scott and I do, by taking vacations to new and vastly complex places once a month, spending only a couple of days in each place, planning becomes not only difficult but ultimately pointless—who really knows what to expect when visiting a new city? After browsing through the options—Kreuger Park safari, wine-tours, whale-watching, Cape Point, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosche botanical gardens—we crossed out the pricey ones—whale-watching and Kreuger Park safari—and decided to split up the rest into our three full days in Cape Town.

§Day 1: Take the N1 out of Cape Town towards Paarl. Turn left onto Suid-Agter Paarl Rd. Stop at Fairview winery (25 Rand for wine and cheese tasting). Buy the Chevin cheese of your choice (14 Rand) and have a picnic on the lawn. Get back on the N1 heading towards Cape Town. Turn left onto Klapmuts Road (R44). Stop at Le Bonheur Winery (15 Rand to taste 5 wines). Buy a bottle of the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (50 Rand).

There is a place behind the estate’s manor house at Le Bonheur where a narrow flight of packed earth steps leads up through the overgrown edges of a terraced garden. I close my eyes and am led up the stairs and in to a daydream. At the top there would be a mature pomegranate tree casting a perimeter of dappled shade around a set of iron-worked chairs and a lazy, weathervane breeze slipping between the long blades of grass at my feet. The moment steps outside of time. I lose the sense of being in South Africa, of being in the twenty-first century. I have seen this moment before, on the hillside of my uncle’s estate in Virginia, or in the De Villiers portrait in the foyer of the house behind me. But then one of the grape pickers appears in my imagination from behind a vineyard row and smiles at me. I am reminded where I am when he sets the crate he’s carrying on his left hip and points behind him at the herd of springbok beyond the vineyards.  I wave, grateful to him for allowing me to make this moment my own.

I had fallen in love with delving into the leisure and rustic luxury of wine countries after taking my first wine-tasting tour in Victoria, Australia, in the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne. So when a brochure at our hostel touted the pleasures of the vineyards outside of Cape Town, my boyfriend and I did not hesitate to go exploring. I’m no sommelier, but I am a fan of wines, cheeses, old houses, vineyards, farm dogs, picnics, and private gardens. The sun finds a particular complement when reflected off the bubbling water of white stone fountains or the soft ruby petals of vigorous roses. To spend a leisurely day in search of the perfect new wine to add to your cellar, while passively enjoying the sites and scenery of the country you’re visiting, seems to me to be the perfect essence of vacation.

Originally called Oude Weltevreden (“Well Satisfied”), the estate of Le Bonheur was established in the late sixteen-hundreds by the De Villiers family from Holland who built the house in the classic H-shape of the Cape Dutch style. It is remarkable to feel the juxtaposition of elegance and comfort the house’s interior suggests. I find myself among moments of arresting familiarity—when a ceramic dish clatters against the surface of one of the wood tables in the tasting room or when the sound of the wind in the trees outside drifts in with a dragonfly through an open window. It is strange how potently an old house at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountain in South Africa has reminded me of my uncle’s home in Virginia.

§Day 2: Drive down the M4, along Simons Bay, towards Cape Point. Stop in Simon’s Town to see the penguins, and buy a malachite bead necklace (60 Rand) from one of the art tables by the tourist office. Look out for baboons and bonteboks.

There is a beach near Simon’s Town where titanic boulders lie half-buried in the sand as though they had been washed in by the tide. Warming themselves on the surface of the rocks or swimming in the calm waters of the sun-drenched cove are dozens of black-footed penguins. Boulder’s Beach is home to one of two mainland colonies of penguins near Cape Town. I walk down to the shore and climb up onto one of the smaller boulders, an arm’s reach from the nearest penguin who lazily swings his head towards me before lying down on his stomach and closing his eyes. On the other side of the tide pool at my feet, a penguin carefully inches his way down the slope of one of the larger rocks, heading towards the water. With a final, charming little leap he splashes into the shallows before enthusiastically waddling away and diving into the waves.

On the walk up from the beach we pass tables of “souvenirs” set up along the road. I am reminded abruptly of a book I had read in my socio-cultural anthropology class by Sally Price called Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Price discusses the longstanding confusion surrounding what the Western disciplines of art and anthropology have often referred to as “primitive” art (when they mean African art) and the desire of Westerners to own the works and display them in their homes as testament to their cultural magnanimity and open-mindedness.

Many of these tables were piled with beautiful examples of African arts and crafts: humanoid figurines, animal figurines, gorgeous trinket boxes, goblets, jewelry, colorful paintings, and beadwork. As I wander between tables, and make jokes with the vendors about the suspicious-looking ostriches who appear to be creeping closer and closer to the lovely shades thrown up over the tables, I can’t find anything that strikes me as primitive about the artwork I’m admiring. If anything, the artists seem to have achieved an aesthetic that is simultaneously confident, powerful, and light-hearted. I recognize something familiar in the philosophy and inspiration behind their creation. I want to be a part of the dancing scenes in the painting; I want to wear the beautiful beaded jewelry on display.

I pick out a string of green malachite beads and pay less than $10 for them. The woman who has sold them to me tells me that green is a good color for my heart as she points to her eyes. I’m struck by the warmth and informality of the moment as she casts another playful glance over her shoulder at the ostrich. Her face brightens suddenly as she catches sight of a little boy running up the street in his school uniform. I watch as he flings himself into her outstretched arms, waving a pencil drawing he’s made of what looks like a swimming bear. As I walk back to our car I decide that the Africa anyone might want to call “primitive” must be a different Africa from the one in which these people are living.

§ Day 3: Take Kloof Nek Road up to Tafelberg and park. Ride the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain (one way, 90 Rand). Buy a painting from the Italian artist working by the first spectator’s point (60 Rand). Hike back down Platteklip Gorge.

The native Khoi San called the mountain “Hoerikwaggo”—meaning “sea mountain”. I like to think the earthly-wise natives even knew the drama of the mountain’s geological history: its formation in the Ediacaran sea over six million years ago, how it was carved flat by glaciers, and how the granite foundation gave strength to the upper layers of sandstone when continental shifting caused it to be pushed up towards the sky where the sun asserts itself as an indomitable force on a clear day in Cape Town. Girdled lizards scurry and disappear into glacier pockets left in the sandstone. Ghost frogs dip in and out of the shadows of plants making up the smallest and yet the most diverse of the seven floristic kingdoms on Earth.

I’ve donned my double-strap Chacos and packed two liters of water in anticipation of the hike. Scott and I decide to take the path towards Maclears Beacon. It is a Thursday morning and there aren’t many other people on the mountain. We follow the path to the edge of the southeast face and settle into a grooved rock outcrop shaded by a reaching Fynbos plant. Overhead swallows dip and spiral like rogue propellers. One zips by barely a meter in front of my face with a sound like a knife slicing through canvas. Across the gorge a family of dassies emerges from a fissure to drink from a trickle of water over iron-stained rock. The weather is warm; the wind is unusually gentle for all of the open space and altitude. I fit comfortably atop my chosen perch, feeling effortlessly at home in the heart of the most diverse flora kingdom on earth, on top of a mountain older than the Himalayas.

Far to my left the web of highway systems and pockets of neighborhoods stretches away towards the airport. I remember suddenly how, upon leaving the airport in our rental car on the first day, I had leaned forward for my first glimpse of Table Mountain. Overhead, a billboard for Heineken, announcing the Dutch beer as “clearly superior”, had blocked my view. But after a few seconds it was behind us, and the mountain in all its ancient and individual glory stretched across the horizon. I smiled as I recalled that throughout our time on the Western Cape, whenever we drove through town, walked down the beaches in Clifton, or explored the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosche, the grandfather mountain stood sentry just beneath the sky. The gated homes of the Camps Bay area and the colorful tin townships alike were spread across the geography extending from the mountain’s base, nestled against its form as against the back of a sleeping parent. The diverse geo- and bionetworks of the Western Cape not only mirror the many different cultural groups who call South Africa their home, but act as a unifying force, combining all of its parts into a singular yet dynamic whole.

On our last morning in Cape Town, I checked the weather in Washington DC on the computer in the lobby of the hostel. I cringed: forty-five degrees and rainy, compared to the seventy-nine and breezy I had enjoyed all week. As I rolled my suitcase down the path to our rental car and glanced up towards one of the small foothills of Table Mountain, I saw two zebras in the shade of an iconic acacia tree. I started, not expecting to see the wild and exotic creatures so close to the city. I vaguely remembered having heard about the small herds that roamed the lower foothills of the mountain, but still I was struck by the strong sense of an encounter with the exotic as I stood watching them graze, with the sounds of the city in the background. A place is a place, I thought, swinging my suitcase into the trunk of the car, until you see zebras. As we drove away, I turned around for one more look at the zebras on the hillside. It occurred to me that the beautiful weather was not the only thing about South Africa that I would miss.

§Take Lufthansa flight 577 from Cape Town to Frankfurt and connect to United flight 917, going home.

[Photographs by Kelly Overvold.]

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I met my thirty-five-year-old, hockey-refereeing boyfriend three years ago, when I was a nineteen year old archaeology student studying at GWU. We met playing a game of Kubb with a bunch of Swede expats in University Yard. In the past ten years he had traveled over 1,000,000 miles around the world—just for fun. Scott lives in a 400 square foot, ramshackle apartment. There is a giant hole in the bathroom ceiling where it caved in during a bad snow melt one year. After hanging out with him for about a week I asked myself, how can I get in on this life?

The recession slammed into my family like hurricane waves against the ocean jetties on the island where I grew up. My parents divorced and, not long afterwards, we lost our home in Savannah, Georgia—the house that I’d lived in since I was twelve. I had to box up my entire library, sell all my bedroom furniture, and beg for a place to store my 100-year-old piano. Asking my aunt to house my possessions in her attic, and for the permission to use her address when I renewed my driver’s license, struck home the overwhelming feeling that I was effectively homeless.

During a late-night telephone conversation with my younger sister, who was just starting her freshman year in college, I said, “Don’t think of yourself as being homeless, think of yourself as a nomad. It’s more romantic.”

When you first think about it, travel today might not seem as romantic as it used to. Captain William Clark trail-blazed across the northwestern territories of the modern United States in the early 19th century, armed with scientific equipment, an Indian guide, and a band of hunters and tradesmen in order to truly discover the lands he was visiting—most of which had not been charted correctly or whose species had not been catalogued. This kind of travel is unarguably fantastic and alluring, not to mention dangerous and difficult. But today when the places we visit have already been thoroughly studied, trafficked, and published, what is it that we are looking for?

***

Scott and I arrive in Madrid on a Friday in February and check in to our hostel. It is our first out-of-country trip together. I love the smell of the hostel. The plaster walls and linoleum floor and the rusty bathroom sink all remind me of the old warehouse where I used to fence. I throw my blanket roll on the top bunk, feeling instantly at home.

We lock our bags into the trunk in our room and decide to set out. We emerge onto the sunlit, cobblestone streets of Madrid, shutting the ancient wooden door of the building behind us with an echoing rumble. Ah, Europe. We consult the 8″ x 12″ map the hostel clerk gave us. She had marked with a red circle the location of our lodgings before pushing us out the door. Scott checks the clock on his phone and says that we should head over to the Prado. It’s free admission after five until closing at six thirty.

At the Plaza de Cánovas del Castillo we have to walk through an underground walkway to get across a busy street, and Scott locks on to my wrist, clearly worried of having me snatched. I barely notice because I am reminded of a scene from my favorite Milan Kundera book, Immortality. Between the heavily graffitied walls and puddles of moisture and trash, I find myself scanning the faces of the bums and prostitutes for a character similar to the Lady in Red.

Finally at the Prado, I grab a pamphlet and quickly circle the works most studied in the art history classes I’m taking back home. I am constantly being told that seeing a work photocopied into a textbook is not the same as seeing the pieces in person. I must agree that confirming the fact that such a piece as Bosch’s grisly triptych actually does exist is something indeed. Scott enjoys the scavenger hunt through the echoing marble halls of the museum and assists me in my sneaky attempts to take illegal pictures. I don’t look at every painting, just the ones that catch my eye. I linger especially at every El Greco and Goya—dark, expressive images were my thing for a while.

***

I remember Scott saying once, “If I’m not traveling, I’m not living.” At first I had scratched it off as sentimental dramaticism, but after a year of traveling with him, seeing Spain, Vietnam, Rome, Cairo, Sweden, and Singapore, I started to realize what he meant. The truth is that the world today is a full-blown global community. A significant amount of US money goes to help communities overseas in times of terrorism, oppression, and national disaster. My toothbrush was made in China. My leather jacket was made in Argentina. My favorite dish at the tapas bar downtown is inspired by South African cuisine. I adore the vocals of Macedonian singer Tanja Cavorska, and I’ve already mentioned Czech author Milan Kundera. It’s a step up from the nineteenth century Brits reading French philosophy and enjoying Italian painting. Today the goal is to cross the threshold of savoring foreign imports and step out into the world that makes such treasures.

Of course it doesn’t stop at recipes and art—the beauty of travel is the opportunity to meet new people, to transform the unknown into the happy shouting of Peruvian families strolling in the Parque de Amor at sunset or the frustrated banging of fists on backgammon boards in a Cairo coffeehouse. There are places that I’ve been in the United States where I feel exponentially less safe than I ever did in Nazareth or Buenos Aires or Cape Town—cities about which guidebooks shake themselves silly with statistics of tourists being robbed. The point is not that foreign places are magical kingdoms of beauty and friendliness but that you can’t know what they’re like until you go and experience them for yourself.

It seems to me that the same is probably the case for the nature of relationships. I don’t know much about dating, but I do know something about meeting people. If I were to strike up a conversation with a Belgian expat in a bar in Venice, with the specific intention of making him my new Belgian friend, I have a feeling it might not go so well. What if it turned out he was a magnificent bore? The idea of forcing new places to conform to your expectations is just as hopeless as deciding in advance the kind of person you would like to meet and fall in love with. Maybe that Belgian expat is a bore but knows a lot about the food in Venice and has a kind disposition and is clearly happy to meet someone with whom he can explore the city? I often find that the good in any place properly trumps the bad. I also find that this is the case with most people too.

In the same way I look at every new city with the potential of discovering something exciting, so too do I meet individuals. In Scott I found so much to inspire, and love, and keep that I decided to call him home. Perhaps one day we’ll find a city somewhere who can offer us the same thing. Until then I think we shall be nomads, together.

***

On our last day in Madrid, we rent a car and drive to Toledo and Segovia, returning through the mountain pass of Navacerrada. Toledo is characterized by its architecture’s grand, and somewhat haunting, grey masonry. The moist air and overcast skies lends an exaggerated feel of medievalism to the place, and I think I can detect the faint smell of water trickling over cold, smooth stone—perfect for the town’s transcription into memory. There’s a song I love from Man of La Mancha, the one with the line “And the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward, Oh withersoever they blow!” Scott and I sit on the wall of the city above the Tagus River, eating sandwiches of chorizo sausage and manchego cheese, while that song runs through my mind. Withersoever they blow, I think, feeling, for the twentieth time that trip, that I am right at home.

[Photographs by Steve Kass]

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A College Student’s Early Reflections on Traveling

            I’ve heard lots of different qualifications as to what it means to be a world-traveler. A general, sort of imperfect way that’s commonly used to classify travelers is by the type of luggage they use.

Some travelers, the “backpackers,” grab a full fifty-liter bag, buy a one-way ticket, and go. They could be gone for a month, sometimes even a year. Some, like the man my boyfriend and I met in Vietnam last year, never go back home.

Other travelers are abroad, often for business, for just a short period of time, spending anywhere from 24 to 72 hours on the ground. These are the “carry-on” travelers. They show up in cities all over the world from Frankfurt to Singapore, all their essentials cleverly packed into a single 20″ x 14″ x 10″ rolling suitcase.

Then you have the third type, the “trunk-travelers”, a Kelly-Overvold-original-coined-term, but you get the idea. These are the travelers who rent an apartment or villa in whatever city or rolling countryside they’re visiting, and stay no fewer than two weeks, no longer than three months, bringing half their possessions along with them.

I’d love to be this last kind of traveler but this is a time and money heavy kind of traveling. I would classify myself more as a carry-on-type traveler—except for pleasure, not business.

A common misconception about traveling is that it’s unaffordable. Another is that you have to go somewhere and be able to spend at least a week to ten days there. An important part of being able to travel, as someone who has a job or is in school, is that you make it an uncompromising priority. For me, I try to spend at least a quarter of the year traveling. In order to do this I have to use every opportunity I have to go somewhere.

Since my main restrictions are my class schedule and my bank account, there are two rules I staunchly follow.

The first is that I make traveling a priority. I even plan my class schedule so that I have at least either Monday or Friday open, giving me that extra day for long weekends.

The other rule is to be as flexible as possible. For every single break or holiday, save only the few days before Christmas and Christmas day itself, I leave it completely open for traveling.

As per my limited bank account, I have cut off prices for fares that impact how flexible I can be. I’ll spend no more than $500 to Europe, any time, and about the same for northern South America—maybe jumping up to $700 if Argentina is being considered because you do earn more miles since it’s about as far as Istanbul is from DC, which is where I’m based. Then I’ll shell out no more than $1100 to most Southeast Asian locations, and no more than $900 to Japan or Australia.

However, to compensate for these restrictions, even though I might have my eye out for a specific city, I will take any low fare that comes my way. If there’s an insanely low $600 fare to Tokyo, I’m going, even if I’ve been there before or the weather is going to be frigid. We did this once to Spain last year. We jumped on a $133 fare on Iberia Air to Madrid over a weekend in February. We went only for two and a half days, but the point is, we went.

In fact, when everything is said and done, that is the number one reason people don’t travel: they don’t just go. I talk to people all the time about all the traveling I do and they all say the same thing: “Man, I wish I could do that.” And the people I’m talking to almost always have more money than I do, and for the most part they even have more control over their schedules, if they would only make traveling a priority. Now I’m not saying EVERYONE needs to make traveling a priority, but if you want to be a world traveler, YOU definitely should. True world travelers have a special and pointed love for traveling and traveling EVERYWHERE, so much so that it is an inseparable part of their identity. Any hesitation to push the button and make the commitment to a low fare that pops up and might go away any minute, because of some other, unknown obligation that you may or may not have in the future, disqualifies you from inclusion among those hit with the world-travel bug. You have to just go. You have to not be able to even think about not going. In your mind, you can actually not afford to not go. This is what it means to have the travel bug.

I’ve heard before that I’m sacrificing too much to be able to travel as much as I do. But this merely stems from a misunderstanding of the concept of the word “sacrifice.” If I was giving up a greater priority for a lesser one, that would be a sacrifice. But since traveling, after doing well in school, is my number one priority, then I’m not making any sacrifices. For example, living in a big and comfortable apartment to me, though very desirable, would still be a lesser priority than being able to travel as much as I do. Every weekend I don’t spend money to go out drinking or to dinner or even to a movie, is money I have towards my next trip. Instead of watching football and eating turkey over Thanksgiving break with my family, I usually do a Southeast Asia trip—this year it was Bangkok. It’s not for everyone, but for me, it’s the only way to travel, and, therefore, the only way to live.

The first time I left the country was the summer after my sophomore year of college to go on an archaeological dig in Israel. That was a little over two years ago. Since then I’ve been to all six of the travelable continents, thirteen countries, and forty-one cities. A few of these places I’ve been more than once. Every year I go on at least seven different trips, travel over100,000 miles, and try to hit at least five new cities. I live in a tiny apartment I share with two other guys, won’t buy anything that’s not on sale, spend a lot of time saying “happy holidays” to my family over the phone, and bring tea bags with me when I go out to bars. “Can I just have a cup of hot water please?” I’ve gotten my fair share of weird looks. But the minute I step off that plane in Saigon, Sydney, or Rome, I know I’ve made the right choice.

[Photographs by Scott Zaban]

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