09/2/13

Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle

Seattle

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Seattle.

And by “always” I mean for the past four years, since one of my best friends moved there. I had nothing against the city before, but ever since it has been The City That Stole Anna. (Though to be fair, it really wasn’t the city’s fault. It was the fault of The Man Who Stole Anna.)

For four years she has been singing Seattle’s praises and urging me to visit her, but every time I had time and money for a big trip, I wanted to go out of the country, and since she usually returned to the East Coast at least once a year, I got to see her anyway. But when I got back from Asia and found myself with more free time than I was likely to have for a long, long time, I decided it was time.

The trip got off to an auspicious start. When I got to the self check-in monitor at Boston Logan, it asked if I would be willing to volunteer for a later flight in exchange for some Delta credit. Since it emphasized that I would get to make my final decision at the gate and I didn’t think Anna would mind picking me up at a different time, I thought I might as well find out the details. It asked how much I would want for the inconvenience, and it offered several choices (something like $50, $75, $100, and $125), along with a keypad. $125 didn’t seem like nearly enough to me, so I put in $250. But then when they actually asked me to volunteer (to switch to a flight that would get me to Seattle 30 minutes later than originally scheduled) they told me they would give me $300 since they couldn’t issue credits in increments of $50! And that is the story of how I got a free plane ticket for basically nothing. (You could also say that I made $300 for half an hour of my time. Maybe that should be my new freelancing rate…)

So that was awesome—what happened next, not so much.

When I got to Seattle I grabbed my suitcase at the baggage claim and waited for half an hour or so for Anna, her husband, Jesse, and their two-year-old to pick me up at the airport. When we were driving past downtown Seattle and admiring the view of Puget Sound I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I don’t usually pick those up but this time I decided to. (Thank God!) It was a woman from Delta, calling to tell me that I hadn’t picked up my suitcase! “No, I did,” I told her, looking right at it. “I have a suitcase with your name on it right here,” she told me gently. At first I didn’t believe her—it is such a distinctive suitcase (bright blue with a lace-up front) that I couldn’t believe there were two of them on the same airplane. But then I unzipped a pocket and found a hairdryer that wasn’t mine. Waves of mortification washed over me as I realized that my carelessness had caused some poor woman to wait and worry for almost an hour, and would now force my friends to turn around and drive back to a place that nobody enjoys driving to. Fortunately, we made good time and my victim took her suitcase back without any recriminations. But I still felt (feel) bad about it.

View from the ferry

View from the ferry

The highlight of my trip was definitely our day trip to the peninsula. We left the house at 7am and took a ferry across the Sound. (I looked and looked, but did not see any seals on the way.) We drove through cute towns with wooden houses that wouldn’t seem terribly out of place in Vermont—except for their views of working ports, complete with cranes. We had breakfast in Port Angeles, which seems to be the biggest town in the area. It has a surprisingly healthy downtown with several nice restaurants (and several that you can take a toddler to without feeling guilty). Then we drove to Hurricane Ridge, an appropriately windy hike in the Olympic Mountains. I had never heard of the Olympic Mountains, but they were stunning. The views made me I feel like I was back in the Alps, but the hike itself was easy enough that bringing a toddler was not a problem. But be warned: despite the fact that it was a hot day in Seattle, it was so chilly on Hurricane Ridge that Anna bought a sweatshirt to wear over her summer dress, and she was not the only one with that idea.

The Olympic Mountains.

The Olympic Mountains.

The trees were worn down, presumably by all the wind at the peak.

The trees were worn down, presumably by all the wind at the peak.

Mountain flowers.

Mountain flowers.

Mist rising from the valley.

Mist rising from the valley.

After Hurricane Ridge we drove another 50 miles to one of the world’s only two temperate rainforests. (It is a rainforest because of the number of inches of rain it gets annually.) It is right next to the town of Forks, which I had never heard of, but which is apparently the setting for Twilight. (Because vampires hate the sun.) Except for about five Twilight-themed tours and businesses (Twilight firewood, anyone?), Forks reminded me of the towns in western New Hampshire near where my grandparents used to live—struggling downtown, trailer park, a field that was hosting a car show. It seemed to be a lumber town that had fallen on hard times. So that was kind of sad, but the rainforest itself was amazing. Alas, there were no monkeys, but there were other-worldly moss-covered trees.

Moss-covered tree

Moss-covered tree

This stream could not have been clearer.

This stream could not have been clearer.

More mossy trees.

More mossy trees.

It was mercifully sunny, and we hiked for about a mile. The trees were spectacular–my camera does not do them justice–and I would love to go back someday.

The Seattle Public Library.

The Seattle Public Library.

In the city, my favorite sights were the library (a really cool modern building worth exploring), the Panama Hotel (where dozens of Japanese families stored their belongings while they were interred), the mansions around Lake Washington, and, of course, Pike Place Market. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but seeing fish fly through the air is one of those things that you will imagine wistfully on your deathbed if you haven’t experienced it in real life.

Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market.

If you enjoy shopping, I highly recommend Fremont (a funky neighborhood known for its independent stores and its non sequitorial statue of Lenin) and Ballard (which has endless clothes, jewelry, and gift shopping). Capitol Hill proved a surprising bust shopping-wise—with the exception of the fabulous Elliott Bay Book Co, an enormous independent book store/nerd paradise.

Anna's daughter playing in a fountain near the Space Needle.

Anna’s daughter playing in a fountain near the Space Needle.

Our best meal was at Marination Station, a Hawaiian restaurant across the harbor from downtown. The views are incomparable, and the pork sliders were delicious. (And I wasn’t the only one who thought so—the lines were out the door.)

More views around Pike Place Market.

More views around Pike Place Market.

To sum up, Seattle may be a friend-stealing bastard, but it’s a pretty fun place to visit.

08/13/13

A Tour de Friends

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The logical thing to do after traveling approximately 20,000 miles*on planes, trains, automobiles, buses, boats, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and an elephant is to lie completely still for a month or two while hooked up to some sort of oxygen tank.

But I’ve never been very logical.

Since I am what is optimistically termed “between jobs,” I have more free time than I have ever had before (at least, since the summer of ’96 when my father informed me that I was no longer allowed to spend my summers flat on my back watching reruns of Saved by the Bell) or am likely to have again. Since to me “free time” = “travel opportunity,” I have decided to visit all the people I never have time to visit when I only have three weeks of vacation a year.

My mother calls it my Tour de Friends. And it is so ambitious that I will probably have to take a page from Lance Armstrong’s book and start injecting some sort of animal-based steroid.

I am going to start by flying to Seattle to see my friend Anna. Then I will fly to Wichita to officiate my friend Vatsady’s wedding. There I will hopefully be able to hitch a ride with one of the groom’s Ohio-dwelling friends to Indiana to visit my friend Camille. From there I will Megabus it to Chicago to see my brother and my friend Dione. Then I will get a ride with my aunt to Minnesota for my cousin’s wedding. While there I will also see my friend Deborah. Then I will take the bus back to Chicago, rest, then take two buses (one to Cleveland, and one to Pittsburgh) to visit friends in Morgantown, West Virginia. Then back to Pittsburgh to see another friend, before going on to Washington, DC to see more. After that I will make a stop to see people in New York before returning to Boston.

I would have loved to have done a more traditional road trip (i.e., in a car), but buying one just for the occasion seemed a little silly. Hopefully the bus won’t be too miserable. Whatever happens, by the end I should have visited six new-to-me states (Washington, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia) and revisited at least seven old ones (Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), traveled 3000 miles, and seen countless people I love.

I can’t wait!

 

08/5/13

I’m Baaaack!

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan

Wow. It’s over. I’m back in the U.S.A.

I can smell the freedom.

First, I’d like to apologize for being so lax about posting towards the end. In my defense, teaching is hard and prepping/grading takes a lot of time. In my further defense, my VPN (which allowed me to access WordPress from China) stopped working so I couldn’t even see my blog, let alone post on it. In my further further defense, sometimes you just want to live things and not write about them. In my further further further defense, I’m kind of lazy.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I’ve learned from my seven months of (mostly) solo travel. In no particular order:

- Eating at restaurants alone is the opposite of a big deal and I can’t even imagine why people are afraid of doing this. Especially in America, where people don’t stare at you and hand you menus that don’t have English on them and there is a zero percent chance that you will end up accidentally ordering snake.

- If you do end up accidentally ordering snake, it won’t be the end of the world.

- That said, eel is much tastier than snake.

- If you had asked me a few months ago if I could imagine voluntarily eating eel, I would not have responded in the affirmative.

- The worst thing about traveling alone is having no one to put sunscreen on your back for you. Or watch your bag while you go swimming. This means that you have to keep your bag right at the water’s edge, and watch it, while you burn. But it’s all good because you’re swimming in Repulse Bay and that could not sound any cooler.

- Staying in female-only dorms is better than mixed dorms, both because you can change your clothes without stress, and because the odds of someone snoring loudly are greatly reduced.

- There is always someone who has been to more countries than you have. There is also always someone who has been to fewer.

- Things are usually on must-do lists for a reason, so don’t try to be smarter than everyone else and skip the main attractions, unless you’re absolutely sure you wouldn’t like it. (By the end I didn’t want to see any more big Buddhas. I feel like I’ve seen every possible variation–largest indoor, largest outdoor, largest gold, largest bronze, largest happy, largest sad… enough! You know something isn’t right when Buddha is making you angry.)

- Don’t plan too far in advance. You never know when someone will tell you that you HAVE to see something–and you want to have the flexibility to go see it.

- Safety is worth splurging on. Take a cab if you feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable, anywhere.

- Be careful about what you say about the country you’re visiting. Sure, we all need to blow off steam sometimes but occasionally people would say things that struck me as borderline racist. Saying “China is so dirty” is a lot better than saying “the Chinese are so dirty.” (But neither should be said aloud if there is even a possibility than someone Chinese will hear you. You are a guest in someone else’s home and the only polite thing to say is that you are delighted by everything.)

- Don’t buy something unless you’re sure you or someone you know will love it forever. Just because everyone else is buying it does not mean that you need it!!!

- Embrace the differences. That’s why you travel, right? Sure, it can be maddening that it’s so hard to find cold water in China (how can people drink hot water when it’s 104 degrees out?!!) but if you wanted everything to be the way things are at home, you could have just stayed there.

What am I missing???

 

 

01/6/13

Beach Bums

1987_10151229098786025_1029000181_n[2]There is something universal about beach towns. If it weren’t for the palm trees, the motorbikes, the “gentlemen’s clubs,” the numerous tailors who will make you a tuxedo in less than 24 hours, and, oh yeah, the elephants, I could have sworn I’d been here before.

I’m not sure why that is… maybe it’s the walking back from the beach all sandy to a room with a fan working overtime. The familiar feeling of–despite all your best efforts–getting burned by the sun. (I swear I wore a hat, Mom!) Maybe it’s the other tourists that make it seem familiar. (Though I have definitely heard some languages here I have never heard before. Isaure and I were seated at a table next to a very large group of very loud, entitled young men yesterday, and we found ourselves guessing in whispered French what country might have had the misfortune to have produced them. Turkey? Kazakhstan? Egypt? Then we saw them again last night, whipping through the town on motorbikes at speeds much too fast to be safe for pedestrians. I suppose it’s good for us as we get older to see people who make youth seem so unattractive.)

Our second day in Koh Chang was very much like the first, except with the addition of a much-improved Khalid. We went straight to the beach (pausing only for Isaure to buy a small inner tube—which sent her somersaulting under the water the moment she sat on it. Being Isaure, she came up laughing.)

We had brunch at one of the seaside resorts. Their restaurant looks like something out of a Club Med brochure—ocean front terrace with white cotton tablecloths and handmade-looking wooden chairs.

We took another walk down the shore, past rope-and-wood swings over the ocean, some sand castles, an enormous, beautiful tree that created almost a hut with it’s low-hanging branches and made me wish once again that I knew something about botany, a local landmark called Porn’s (apparently a common Thai name) which looks exactly like the jungle tree house in “Swiss Family Robinson” and is therefore the place I am most excited to eat dinner.

Back on our beach, we ate a quick lunch then went back in the water and swam and floated and talked and talked. Then we sat on our towels and watched the sun set over the water. In Chiang Mai we saw almost no stars—we couldn’t figure out if that was because of light pollution or pollution pollution—but from the beach we could see thousands and thousands. I found myself wondering if they were the same stars we could see in Boston (I thought they should be, since we were in the same hemisphere), but I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Khalid of course immediately pulled out his star-finding app, but the Big Dipper was not where it told us it should be. I spent the next few minutes turning in slow circles on the sand, trying to find stars that were not there.

11/26/12

Trigger: Pulled

I did it.

After weeks and weeks of dreading and debating when and where and how to do it, I finally told my bosses that I am leaving. Which is another word for quitting. Which sounds so… permanent.

I’ve really only ever worked at one place. My dream place. And I have a dream job at my dream place—making public television shows that are educational and really good and a lot of fun to work on. And I have worked there for almost eight years. It will be exactly eight years when I leave. That’s longer than I’ve done anything. That’s longer than people who can do multiplication have been alive.

So why am I going?

Because I dream of travel. Literally. I have a recurring dream that I am going on an amazing trip to multiple countries—never the same countries. And I always wake up feeling empty.

Not that I haven’t traveled already. I have. I’ve been to much (most?) of Europe, all of North America, three countries in South America and two countries in Africa. Which sounds very impressive if you don’t take into account that in reality I only spent a few hours in Brazil (I picked the flight with the longest layover possible, and went to considerable trouble of getting a visa so I could go out to dinner in Sao Paulo), maybe 10 hours in Uruguay, and approximately 10 minutes in Mexico (I walked across the border, got my passport stamped, and walked back). That’s the sort of thing you have to do when you only get 15 vacation days a year. And the more years went by, the more I was sure I didn’t want to die with only stories about trips I could have timed on a stop watch.

So I am chucking everything—dream job, dream condo, dream second job (people pay me to write stuff!)—and heading to Asia. I will be traveling for two months in Southeast Asia, then working for four in China, then traveling for another month. I plan to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and Japan. After that, if money permits, I will do some Spanish immersion in Central America.

I know I should be nervous, but I’m too busy being excited.

11/25/12

Me and Bobby McGee

My condo in its heyday

My condo is beautiful. It’s my baby. I bought it when it was brand new. I was the first person to open the cabinets, hammer nails into the plaster, fill the tub with bubbles. I even got to pick out the light fixtures. (Which was not easy for someone plagued with indecision!)

I lovingly decorated every square inch of it. I still find interior designs I painstakingly sketched out with colored pencils during the months that I waited for the financing to finally come through. I painted a 15-foot-long, 10-foot-high wall yellow all by myself. (Which, in retrospect, was not the brightest thing to do, since if I had fallen I could have lain there for days without anyone noticing.) I covered another wall with bold black-and-white fabric. I spent hours in Home Goods (the happiest place on earth.) I evaluated dozens of white curtains before settling on the right ones. My mother and I drove my father’s pick-up all over eastern Massachusetts picking up furniture painstakingly selected from Craigslist.

But I have now cheerfully sold nearly every stick of furniture. Next up: the condo itself.

As Janis Joplin sang, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Which is another way of saying that if you don’t want to be tied down, you need to sell all your crap.

It’s not easy. Not even a little bit. Not even for someone who had fantasies of being able to fit all her worldly possessions into the bed of a pick-up truck. (Even without my furniture, I am closer to filling a Mack than a pick-up. I blame the shoes.)

But I am determined to keep selling, donating, and tossing stuff I don’t need. And every time I get rid of something, I really do feel freer.

I think Janis would be proud.