General Travel


Today is World Tourism Day, and I can’t think of a better way to ring in the fall season than celebrating the art of tourism around the globe.  From travelers visiting the U.S. to Americans exploring other parts of the world, tourism is an economic sector defined by everything from leisure to education to crossing things off of one’s “bucket list.”

World Tourism Day was founded by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization in 1980 and has been celebrated on September 27th every year since then.  According to the UNWTO, the purpose of World Tourism Day is to “foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  This year the official celebrations are being held in Maspalomas, Spain, a town located on the island of Gran Canaria (off the coast of Western Sahara, a desert territory that used to be a Spanish province but has been mainly under Moroccan control since 1979).

These days tourism is much more attainable by the masses, thanks in large part to the development of transportation technology.  It is no longer necessary to spend months aboard a cramped ship to get to a different continent (or risk suffering from ailments such as cholera or scurvy in the process).  It is now possible to hop on a plane, take a nap or watch a few movies, and wake up in a foreign land.

More and more Americans are taking advantage of the modern sensibilities of transportation these days too.  Contrary to prevailing stereotypes that Americans do not generally venture out beyond their own borders, the U.S. State Department reported at the beginning of 2012 that the number of passport holders has been steadily increasing over the years.  In 1989 only 7 million American passports were in circulation (less than 3% of the population), a figure which climbed to 48 million in 2000 and hit 110 million last year.  With around 313 million comprising the U.S. population nowadays, that means that more than one-third of Americans currently hold passports.

As someone who applied for her first passport as a teenager, it is still a treasured object among my possessions.  That passport was the key to my first trip overseas, my first study abroad program, holidays with friends, and many other travel adventures in which I pretty much took a breath and said, “here we go.”  It allowed me to see different parts of the world, meet different people, study different languages, and get into some situations that make for decent stories to tell friends over coffee.  Thanks to having a passport, I’ve been on a Egyptian train that derailed on the way back to Cairo from Aswan, got punched in the back by a crazed man on a train headed to Chennai, India (I guess I just don’t have great luck with trains), almost lost my guide in the jungles of Cambodia, had schoolgirls in a rural village in Korea chase me because they thought I was Britney Spears (all blondes look the same I suppose), and other adventures that would not have otherwise been possible.

Record numbers of Americans are enjoying the adventures made available to them through tourism as well.  According to the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, 8.1 million Americans traveled abroad in the first two months of 2012, a 6% jump from the same time period in 2011.  Europe of course was a popular destination, but the largest increases in travel figures were actually to Central America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.  Who says Americans aren’t adventurous?

Whether a seasoned or aspiring traveler, World Tourism Day is an opportunity to recognize the role which tourism plays in not just international relations between countries, but also in cultural and societal relations between individuals.  Tourism benefits countries economically, socially, and politically in that we can both invest in each other’s economies (anyone staying in a hotel or buying a souvenir in a foreign country is contributing, after all) and in each other.

Happy World Tourism Day!

As my husband and I have been on a bit of a travel sabbatical lately, I’ve found myself banging my head on the table as news reports have come in the last few weeks about some fellow travelers.  Now I have a better appreciation for sidelined athletes frustratedly yelling at their teammates from the bench.

When traveling, one is automatically an ambassador of his or her home country. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want that responsibility, or if you don’t take the role seriously. Much like the raunchy pop stars of our day who decry the fact that young girls tend to follow their behavior, travelers are a reflection of their homeland.  Like or not.

After the news of Representative Yoder going skinny dipping in Israel on an official trip hit the press, I became even more convinced that Washington lawmakers should be required to undergo “cultural etiquette” training to teach them how to behave when traveling.  And when photos of Prince Harry cavorting nude in Las Vegas were circulated (what is it with naked guys lately?), it came to mind that perhaps Buckingham Palace and the United Nations ought to consider having seminars as well.  Anything to prevent more unwarranted exposure for travelers (no pun intended).

Which brings us to travel etiquette.  It’s not rocket science to conduct yourself in a foreign country with a bit of propriety.  The general rule of thumb is as follows:  If you would not engage in a particular behavior at your grandmother’s house, don’t do it overseas.  Unfortunately, in the name of “vacation” or “letting loose,” travelers often commit stupid, drunken, or plain rude (or all of the above) actions.  More often than not, it leads to personal embarrassment (Facebook and Twitter are a 24-hour ticker tape blasting out many a person’s indiscretions for the world to see), irreversible damage, and a perpetuated negative stereotype of one’s nationality.

Etiquette is unfortunately a dying art, but it can certainly be revived.  If more travelers would take seriously the reality that their actions are watched closely by locals, it seems logical to suggest that less instances of drunken disorder, nudity (in any public place), or other diplomatic kerfuffles would take place.  It just takes some thought and discipline.

Some thoughts on avoiding conduct unbecoming of a traveler:

–If you would not want your behavior broadcast through social media, don’t do it.

–If you’re not sure whether or not you’d want your behavior broadcast through social media, ask yourself if you would be okay engaging in that behavior at your grandmother’s house.

–Don’t assume, when you’re being loud/drunk/obnoxious, that locals are laughing with you. Au contraire.

–Read up on the local customs of your destination before you go, so you at least have prior warning and can try to avoid committing faux pas (i.e. crossing your legs and showing the bottom of your foot to individuals in the Middle East).

–We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.  Traveling is an opportunity to listen and learn from the place you’re visiting, not to barge in and announce your presence.  Quiet, respectful graciousness never goes out of style.

–Lastly, in the name of diplomatic decency, keep your clothes on.  Please.

 

 

 

As a traveler, the last few months were heaven on earth.  Amidst planning a June 2nd wedding and looking forward to honeymooning in Bora Bora, there was a hen do (bachelorette party) with friends in London, as well as various weddings for friends and family.  Weekends were booked for months at a time, and it felt like I should have given the post office Ronald Reagan Airport as a forwarding address.

Then suddenly everything just…stopped.  After returning from our honeymoon and then attending my cousin’s early July wedding in Texas, Leon and I looked at the calendar and were amazed that weekends were actually open.  That was a new feeling, to be sure.  We were now able to sit down and draw out plans–a budget for the upcoming months, what post-wedding errands to run, what needed to be done around the house, and so forth.

As a normal newly married couple, we knew that we needed to tighten our belts and try to plan responsibly for the future.  It was time to work hard, save as much as we could, and use the weekends as time to catch up on domestic duties and touch base with friends.  In other words, for at least a few months, travel would have to be put on the back burner.

Just because travel is on pause, however, does not mean that travelers must tap their foot and feel endlessly restless.  A sabbatical from travel is a great time to perform some “routine maintenance.”  After all, the mind can continue to travel, even when the body cannot.

My goals for the near future are to brush up on languages that I haven’t been able to practice lately, and to reconnect with cultures that are sorely missed.  This will be a great time to dust off the Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese dictionaries that have sat neglected on the bookshelf, for instance.  I’ve also finally started to watch the Korean drama “The Coffee Prince,” which my friend Hae Chin recommended ages ago.  I’m only on the first episode, but the show has already made me miss Seoul and brought back some great memories.  And, of course, there are great ethnic restaurants in D.C. that provide a taste of the exotic at home.

Life consists of ebbs and flows, and travel falls into that.  Whenever or wherever the next trip is, the next flow will certainly be appreciated.  But for now, it’s time to have a bit of an off-season.  Just as the Olympic athletes don’t slow up on training, though, a traveler is wise to work on some maintenance during homebound periods.

According to popular wisdom these days, 40 is the new 30, and 30 is the new 20.

Or something to that effect. The main point of reasoning behind that concept, either way, is that people are apparently doing the same things (if not more) that they were doing when they were younger. Age is just a number, after all, and when you put together youthful vitality with the wisdom of experience, you have an unstoppable combination.

I had quietly absorbed this thinking throughout my 20’s and, up until recently, pretty much believed it. That is, until I began the descent from my late 20’s and the metaphorical airplane started to land on the tarmac of my 30’s.

I’m turning 30 soon.  Granted, not for about five and a half months, but it is quickly coming for me. How do I know, you ask?

I know that I’m approaching 30 just like children know when they’re in trouble. Or when you know you’ve taken a swig of milk that expired awhile ago.  When you’re close to 30, you just know.

Physically:

You literally start to feel it. When I woke up in the mornings at age 22, I could leap out of bed and hit the ground running. Nowadays, I have to take my time. Joints have to crack, muscles have to be jerked awake, and caffeine must start to brew. When I get up, my body tells me if I get up too quickly, and it is not in a good mood when it has to do that.

Not to mention that your metabolism changes. It’s like there’s a switch somewhere in your body that, one day, just turns itself off. You don’t know when, and you have no warning. All of those days of eating an extra serving of pizza, or sneaking cookies after a rough day at work, now show up for the world to see. You start thinking about if you’re getting enough fiber, if your multivitamin has enough iron in it, and if your disdain for milk as a child will contribute to osteoporosis when you’re older. Just the stress from thinking about all of those things makes you want an ice cream sundae (which is now the enemy).

Mentally:

You have more “out of it” days. Post-Its become not just a handy tool, but a lifesaving device that should be covered by health insurance. You find yourself starting to leave yourself little reminder notes that remind you to remind yourself to do something. And you’re not quite sure what that “something” was, because you wrote that part down on another Post-It whose location you don’t quite recall.

You have to take more breaks. I personally look back at my college days and marvel at the amount of “stuff” I was able to soak up. There were books to be read for each class, papers to write, meetings with professors to attend, sorority functions to organize, and friends to be seen. Sleep was an option, and even if you didn’t get 8 hours a night (or 5 or 6), your mind still tended to be pretty sharp in the mornings. When you begin to approach 30, however, it’s a different story. If I don’t get my 8 hours of sleep per night, I feel it the next day–usually because I run into something in a foggy haze. And I have to raise the “I’m cranky” flag for my husband.

That’s not to say that reaching 30 is void of perks, though. You have more experience, whether professional, life, or otherwise. You might not have your life’s calling figured out, but you’ve tried enough things and made enough mistakes to know what it’s not. You’ve either kissed enough frogs to find a prince, or you now have a better understanding of what a non-prince transforming frog looks like (and that you should run away). You pretty much know whether or not you want to get married (or you already are), whether you want to have kids (or already have them), and whether or not you want to continue on the career path you’re on (or whether you don’t).

Turning 30, of course, is not an excuse to become complacent.  There is, however, a balance. For instance, my grandparents, before my grandmother passed away, were avid travelers. They embarked on all sorts of adventures when they were young, and when they were old. They did not let their age stop them from traveling; they did, however, tailor their travels to more comfortably fit their age bracket. They took buses when before they would have hiked, they did group tours when before they would have ventured out solo, and they packed plenty of vitamins when before they would have packed, well, not vitamins.

I will hopefully follow in their footsteps.  As much as I would like to think of myself hiking up the summits of Machu Picchu with a walker, however, I’ll have to take age into consideration.

In the meantime, I’ll try to approach my 30th birthday with realistic expectations of the challenges (and advantages) of that decade. And of course I’ll leave myself a Post-It note reminding me when my birthday is.

Well, it’s almost that time of year again.

As the weather warms up, flowers start to bloom, and it’s possible to leave the house without that heavy coat, tourist season begins to awaken.  Individuals from around the world, perhaps including yourself, begin to pack their bags, plan how to best utilize their hard-earned vacation days, and look forward to taking a break from the daily grind.

Here in D.C., tourist season is already in full force.  Tourists have been trickling in for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, with this year marking 100 years since Japan first brought the beautiful trees over to Washington.  I have to confess, sadly, that the blooms come and go pretty quickly starting in late March, and local Washingtonians tend to feel bad for the tourists who travel up here in mid-April expecting them to still be on display.

Tourist season in D.C. tends to run at high speed through the balmy weeks of August.  Interns flood the city to fill thousands of summer internship positions, student groups come to study our nation’s history, international visitors come to take advantage of the warm weather on the East coast, and families come to complete the pilgrimage of bringing their children to the country’s capital.  In turn, the locals tend to brace themselves for impact.

Like any popular destination, D.C. is thankful for tourist season, but in a slightly begrudging way.  Politicians have gotten in trouble in the past, to be sure, for “dissing” the large groups of sweaty, tired tourists wandering aimlessly around the Capitol and distracting security guards by asking for directions. Locals tend to stay away from downtown D.C. at all costs, bemoaning the takeover of the city that causes yearly bouts of extra traffic, street congestion, and longer lines at places of interest.

To prepare for this year’s tourist season, local papers in the D.C. area have taken to Twitter and other social media to ask locals to give advice to tourists.  That got me to thinking.  After all, part of being a good tourist means preparing effectively for your trip, namely, trying to understand a bit about the local culture of your vacation destination and serving as not just an economic asset to the region’s coffers, but also as a graceful ambassador of your point of origin.

Case in point:  Study the local culture.  This doesn’t mean that you have to read dozens of books about D.C. and know more than your tour guide at the Smithsonian (which is comprised of several different museums by the way, not just one big one).  Instead, this means, as I like to call it, blending into the environment and stealthily eyeing how the locals live.  For instance, in D.C. it is an unwritten rule of culture that people stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left.  I’ve seen Washingtonians fighting the rush hour on their work commutes find themselves trapped on the escalators by tourist groups chatting away, yell at them, and literally try to run them over.  The best remedy to avoid being “that person” blocking the escalator and irritating the locals who aren’t on holiday is to study how other people are acting.  If everyone is standing to the right of the escalator, that is not the moment to declare your individuality and repulsion towards conformity.  Stand to the right just like everyone else.

Another way to be a good tourist is to, in fact, pretend like you’re not a tourist.  Shopkeepers in D.C. tend to be very nice people, but they do get frustrated by the crowds who cram into their stores, don’t look at them, and proceed to aggressively paw through their merchandise and only address them if they want to know the price, often in a gruff tone.  To be a graceful visitor, slow down.  Take your time in a shop, greeting the shopkeeper or employee with a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” and asking politely if it would be all right to touch items that look breakable.  Being in a different city should be treated as visiting someone else’s home.  As well, local shopkeepers, waiters, etc., can often give you valuable advice and answer any questions you might have.

In terms of sightseeing, everyone has their own travel style.  I have friends whose parents literally schedule every hour of family vacations, often starting at 7 a.m., with even bathroom breaks specifically slotted for certain times.  Others, such as myself, like to make a list of things to see, but also allow plenty of time to just “chill out” and enjoy the city.  Some of my best travel memories are of sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and just people watching all afternoon.  Of course, it is beneficial to see the major tourist sites, or to visit things of particular interest (if you’re a history buff, for instance, the National Archives in D.C. is a must), but it is okay to accept the reality that you will not physically be able to see everything and do everything.  I’ve lived in D.C. for almost three years now, and there are numerous things I haven’t done or seen yet.

Another rule of thumb I like to keep in mind while traveling is that it’s okay to leave something on the list unchecked.  When I was an intern in D.C. back in 2005, I felt like I had to see everything and do everything in the city before I left.  After all, I didn’t think I’d be back on the East coast ever again.  Then, several years later, I found myself there again, this time living and working in the city.  You never know when you’ll get to go back to a location, so if there are a couple of things you didn’t get to do on your vacation, it’s not the end of the world.

Another thing to keep in mind while traveling is the temptation to go overboard on souvenirs.  I myself have been guilty of this (hello Cambodian musical instruments that I can’t even play, or tropical sundresses that look great in the Caribbean but ridiculous anywhere else).  It’s tempting when you’re in a new place to snap up all of the local “must haves,” but then you get home with a heavy suitcase of extra stuff that you wonder what on earth you’ll do with.  My goal while traveling is to find one unique item that will always remind me of my trip.  It doesn’t have to be super expensive, and it’s also helpful to get a collection of something going.  I began to pick up pieces of jewelry during my travels, often a pair of earrings or a necklace, and they each have a story with a special meaning behind them. Plus I’ll be able to share them with my daughter someday, if Leon and I have one.  Beginning a focused collection of something takes away the pressure of feeling like you have to buy everything in sight and getting home wondering why you ended up with twelve refrigerator magnets.

When it comes down to it, the art of being a good tourist means relaxing and enjoying yourself.  Travel can be stressful if you let it, to be certain, but once you get to your destination it’s important to give yourself the mental break you worked so hard to earn.  It’s possible to strive for that balance between seeing lots of interesting things and also going along slowly enough to watch the local customs and abide by them.

Happy tourist season 2012 everyone!

For most nomads, or travelers in general, the thought of “settling down” can be a scary one.  It’s far more exciting to see yourself gallivanting around the globe, darting from locale to locale, and going wherever the wind takes you.

That was my life for awhile, and I loved it.  From Europe to Asia to South America, three years of indulging in every travel whim one could imagine flew by.  To be sure, a few “dream destinations” were left on the list to leave room for future adventures, but overall the attitude was to travel as much as possible.

While many friends and family members were focused on finding houses, taking out mortgage loans, finding stable employment, and putting money away into retirement funds, those things were the furthest from my mind.  Sure, bills had to be paid and travel funds needed to be saved up, and thankfully I enjoyed my work experiences overseas (which did add skills to the resume and money into the bank account).  However, more long term concepts like mortgages and retirement accounts were not that desirable.  They were downright scary.

But, as happens to most nomads, the day does come in which one begins to think of the overall picture of the future, instead of the next travel adventure.  At least, it did for me.  Things began to change when I moved to D.C. three years ago, met my almost-husband two years ago, and started to think about putting down some roots.

With the wedding quickly approaching, Leon and I began to discuss whether or not we wanted to look at purchasing a home in the D.C./northern Virginia area.  After a lot of prayer and discussion, we both felt like the D.C. area was where we wanted to be for the indefinite future.  We spent hours researching the home buying process, looked at properties, and tried to find a suitable place in our price range (after getting over the shock that a property in D.C. costs the same as two properties in Texas or Colorado).  We found a realtor, met with her to discuss the process, and spent a lot of time perusing housing listings before finding a property that we felt was a good fit for our needs, fit within our budget, and didn’t require a two-hour work commute for either of us.  If the contracts go through, it looks like we might officially be first-time homeowners soon.

Amidst the process of trying to find a home, Leon asked me if I felt okay with the commitment.  After all, having a mortgage means being anchored to same place, at least for awhile, and means giving up the nomadic freedom to spontaneously relocate at a moment’s notice.

Quite shockingly, however, the transition feels very natural.  Travel is still a passion, and will always be.  The difference is that, as I’ve learned recently, it is possible to aim for a balance.  It’s possible to save up for another travel adventure in a faraway land, and to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity for all things international, while also striving to provide stability for future children and planning for a healthy retirement situation.

Of course, it’s more fun to hike through the Cambodian jungle than look through housing contracts, but it is exciting to think that those housing contracts signal the beginning of a new chapter.

To the chagrin of many, and the delight of others, Valentine’s Day is next week.  In case you hadn’t noticed all of the red hearts filled with chocolate lining your local grocery store aisles.

February 14th marks the day which some anticipate with breathless excitement, which some dub “Singles Awareness Day,” and which others brush it off as a “commercialized, fabricated holiday” meant to boost retail sales of florists and candy shops.

Depending on what stage of life you’re in, Valentine’s Days over the years can have many different faces.  As a kid, Valentine’s Day was exciting for my friends and me–our parents would take us to buy little cards and candy hearts at the store and we would all exchange them during the school day.  There were years when Valentine’s Days meant going out with a group of fellow single girlfriends to see a chick flick and “people watch” individuals who had the misfortune of being on awkward dates that evening.  Those were always fun.

There were also some not so great Valentine’s Days.  Like the one where the guy I was dating cooked a great dinner for me (apparently out of guilt, or so he told me when he broke up with me a week later).  Or the one when a guy I had been out with a few times called to tell me that he was boycotting Valentine’s Day because it was a “useless” holiday, and he was going to go to the gym instead.

Thankfully, recent Valentine’s Days have been much better.  Valentine’s Day 2008 was spent with my mom in Rio de Janeiro, the same week when we somehow ended up caught in the middle of the Carnival parade near Ipanema Beach.  On February 13th, 2010, pre-Valentine’s Day, I was reintroduced to my now-fiancé.  One year ago, also on February 13th, Leon proposed, and we celebrated our engagement with friends on the actual holiday.

Americans, in general, tend to treat Valentine’s Day as a pretty big deal.  One only need to turn on the TV this week to see a jewelry store advertisement, for instance.  American culture overall seems to uphold certain traditions for Valentine’s Day, namely, nice dinners, flowers, chocolates, jewelry, cards, and candy.  In its purest form, it’s a day to show love and appreciation for loved ones, especially a spouse, and to take a step back from the hectic pace of life to rekindle any dimmed sparks.

Celebrations will also be rampant around the rest of the globe next week.  In Mexico, for instance, Valentine’s Day is also known as the day of “amor y amistad” (love and friendship), and apparently anything red and heart-shaped is a popular gift.  In Western Europe, from what I saw, it seemed like flowers and chocolates were the most common gifts.  An interesting article I read recently talked about how, in Africa, Valentine’s celebrations mainly happen among affluent residents, but because so much of the world’s cocoa bean supply is grown on the continent, Africa is permanently tied to the holiday.

In South Korea, they do things a little differently.  I remember being surprised to hear from my Korean friends that February 14th was a day when girls would give gifts to boys, and then one month later on March 14th (also known as “White Day”) the guys were supposed to “step up” and bestow gifts upon them (to note, in Japan they do the same thing).  The Koreans also go one step further–another month later, on April 14th, single people are supposed to eat jjajanmyun, wheat noodles smothered in black soybean sauce.  To add insult to injury, April 14th is also called “Black Day.”  I remember seeing many depressed-looking Koreans out and about that day.

Then there are some places that don’t allow Valentine’s Day celebrations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where things like the sale of red roses are outlawed.  Militant Hindu groups in India have also called for bans on Valentine’s Day, namely because St. Valentine is a Christian figure.  From some research I did, however, it sounds like some clandestine celebrations still occur.

This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, and it will be interesting to see what is happening around D.C.  (Last year the holiday fell on a Monday, and I remember cringing while watching men in suits and ties fight over the last bouquets of roses at the local CVS).  This year, besides spending time with Leon, I’m planning on gaming the system a little bit; I’m going to wait and buy chocolates and candy the day after Valentine’s Day.  When they’re on sale.

 

 

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