General Travel


Each new year brings a new discussion of what hot spots travelers should pay attention to.  There are lists floating around the Internet of what cities to visit, what beaches to frequent, and so forth.

I often find myself feeling like the lists miss out on some great destinations, which is no surprise given how subjective travel lists are.  After reading Frommer’s list for 2012, I liked several of their suggestions (Beirut, Ghana, the Yucatan Peninsula), but wanted to add some of my own “hot spots” for 2012.

Below are my travel picks for this new year, a year hopefully filled with travel adventures (international or domestic)…

1)  Dublin.  I spent a few days in Dublin several years ago and fell in love with the easygoing, friendly locals (most likely laid back on account of how many Guinnesses they can put away before 10 a.m., but no matter).  After feasting on some incredible Irish stew with soda bread, it’s easy to arrange a tour to take you out to the emerald hills and waterfalls that make Ireland so breathtaking.

2)  Dubrovnik.  In recent days, Croatia has been touted as an “up and coming” tourist destination, on account of its great location on the Mediterranean but cheaper prices than other European countries.  Some friends of mine visited recently and reported back that Dubrovnik is a great combination of quaint history and emerging modernness.

3)  Tahiti.  Leon and I are spending our honeymoon in French Polynesia, and I am counting the days–I developed a fascination with the islands back in college after seeing pictures of the bungalows suspended over turquoise water.  The area is also famous for its vanilla and black pearls, not to mention that Tahiti hosts a Paul Gauguin museum chronicling the intriguing life of the artist who left his family in Paris to morph himself into an islander.

4)  Tel Aviv.  It has always been a dream of mine to make it out to Israel at some point to visit the Holy Land, and to experience Tel Aviv.  Known as the cultural capital of Israel, the city has everything from beaches to the famous Old Jaffa neighborhood to incredible museums.

5)  Auckland.  New Zealand has the whole Lord of the Rings-esque scenic beauty, to be sure, but I mainly want to visit because all of the New Zealanders I’ve met are just so cool.  When I lived in Korea, I worked with several New Zealand natives and loved them to death.  They love their homeland, and after seeing one picture of Auckland, my attention was captured.

6)  Seoul.  It seems like yesterday that I left Seoul to return to the States, and I cannot believe that it was actually three years ago.  The city is a mix of vibrant intensity, chic cosmopolitanism, and traditional heritage.  In one neighborhood of Seoul, you can find the newest gadgets that aren’t even available in the U.S. yet, while in another you can observe Koreans participating in a cultural festival wearing their native hanbok (traditional dress).  And don’t get me started on how incredible the food is…

7)  Colorado Springs.  Obviously, the U.S. has incredible travel destinations that bring in tourists from all over, so I had to include a great American city in my list.  Leon and I have spent time in Colorado recently, since he hails from Pueblo, and we took time over the holidays to meet up with some of my college friends in Colorado Springs.  The snow-capped mountains were breathtaking, and the view of Pike’s Peak does not disappoint.  There is a cute downtown area where we grabbed some fondue one evening, and I remember being impressed with the city’s laid back, fun vibe.

These are just a few suggestions for 2012–I’ll of course be interested to see what locations emerge as promising destinations as the year goes on.  In the meantime, happy travels!

 

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It is now ten days away from Christmas, and even for those who don’t check their calendars often it is pretty apparent.  All one must do to be reminded that Christmas Day is quickly approaching is head to the nearest mall, sit at a table in the food court, and watch people run around with eyes bulging out of their heads, nostrils flared, and various shopping bags swinging from their tense arms.  In D.C., shoppers like myself who chose to get their Christmas gifts early (thank you, online shopping) are pretty much avoiding the stores at all costs until after the new year.  I personally don’t really see the merit in trying to get something on sale if you risk being trampled in the process.

The main thing I’m focusing on now is the fact that this year’s Christmas will be very unique, and will entail the exploration of previously undiscovered territory.  In the past, to be sure, I’ve been blessed to have some unique Christmas experiences–Christmas in South Korea (beautiful, except that I was violently ill from Korean food and water-related organisms unknown to my American intestinal system), Christmas in Rome with my family, and of course, many Christmases spent with my family in Texas.  This Christmas, however, will be unlike any other I’ve experienced.

To expound, this Christmas will be my first Christmas as an engaged woman.  It is a transition for any guy or girl experiencing their first Christmas with a fiancé or spouse, and it appears to be a trial-and-error kind of process.  After all, when you’re single, you only have one person’s schedule to coordinate, and one set of family members to consider visiting (in most cases).  However, when you’re engaged and/or married, there are suddenly two sets of families to think of, two sets of schedules to coordinate, and two airplane seats to book instead of one.

Case in point:  Months ago, Leon and I sat down to have a “meeting” about how to organize our Christmas plans.  His family is in Colorado, while mine is in Texas, so there were the obvious geographical considerations to mull over.  Besides that, our families had respective Christmas traditions, like the fact that my family usually opened presents on Christmas morning and both of our families usually went to church on Christmas Eve.  We wanted to find a reasonable solution to the often stressful dilemma that engaged or married couples face of trying to spend time with both sets of families.

After a brainstorming session, we both agreed that even though it seemed insane, we wanted to see both families during our first Christmas as an engaged couple.  So, we both said a prayer and booked tickets to fly to Texas for a couple of days to visit my family and exchange presents on Christmas morning, then fly to Colorado on Christmas afternoon to visit Leon’s family for a couple of days.  At least, we told ourselves, that way we’ll be with both families on December 25.

The reaction we received from engaged/married friends, who all admitted that planning holidays had sometimes caused squabbles or anxiety attacks, was pretty mixed.  Some thought that the idea was great; others thought that we had bitten off way more peppermint bark than we could chew.

It’s a natural learning process, I was also told by friends who had experienced the transition before, to navigate the new waters of stewarding scarce holiday vacation days from work between respective families.  One sage friend told us to be patient, that along the way feelings would get hurt, or we would find ourselves exhausted from trying to spend appropriate amounts of time with each family, and that we had to allow ourselves (and our families) extra grace during present and future holidays.  Sound advice, I thought–after all, Jesus is the reason for the season, and it would cheat everyone of the full meaning of Christmas if the focus was solely on travel arrangements.

So, we’re going to do our best, try to enjoy next week, and cherish the precious time that we are thankful to have with each of our families.  We’re also going to pray that bad weather, i.e. slick Texas sleet or heavy Colorado snow, doesn’t attack our carefully coordinated plans.

As I mused over what to write about this week, my friend and co-worker Lisa suggested that I consider thinking about Christmas gifts that travelers would enjoy.  After all, according to the calendar, Christmas is in just a couple of weeks.

I do have to confess that, personally, I’m done with my Christmas shopping.  I’ve never been attracted to the idea of hitting the mall (or any store, even the grocery store) in the days leading up to Christmas, when everyone is frantically making last-minute purchases.  Images in the news of people pepper spraying each other at Wal-Mart and the thought of being trampled in the name of sales only solidified my decision to avoid this year’s crowds.

If, however, you are still trying to figure out what to get for the traveler in your life, I did some thinking and tried to compile a list of possible gift ideas.  Now, this is just off the top of my head, so I’m sure I’ve missed some–feel free to include your own suggestions in the comment section.

Here’s what I thought of after brainstorming for a few minutes:

–A world map with colored pins.  My mother gave me one a few years ago, and I absolutely love it.  It’s a framed map that hangs on the wall, and it comes with different colored pins for you to designate places you’ve been and places you’d like to go.

–A passport holder.  They come all sorts of colors and styles, and they protect your passport while you’re out and about.

–A language book, language dictionary, or even language class.  Giving the gift of knowledge is always a benefit to the receiver, and encouraging a traveler to keep up a language or learn a new one is no exception.  This year Leon is thinking of giving me an English and Italian Bible (don’t worry, we decided to discuss our gifts to each other beforehand, so there was no breach of secrecy), and I told him that I thought it was a fantastic idea.

–A new piece of luggage or luggage accessory.  Travelers tend to beat up their luggage pretty quickly, especially if they’re traveling to remote parts of the world.  I’ve received several travel makeup bags, travel backpacks, luggage tags, and other luggage-related gifts over the years, and I have appreciated them all.

–A universal plug adapter.  It’s not the most romantic/sentimental gift, but boy are they one of the best tools ever for travelers.  I bought one a few years ago, and it takes the guesswork out of making sure you have the correct adapter for whichever region/country/continent you’re traveling to.

–A notebook (preferably small to fit easily into carry-ons or backpacks).  I’m always writing things down when I travel, whether a new phrase I learned in Hindi or the name of a newly discovered coffee shop in Italy.  Having a cute notebook handy is not only helpful, but you also have a written memento of your trip afterwards.

And last but certainly not least…

–An actual travel opportunity!  This doesn’t mean you have to give all of your friends plane tickets to Bali for Christmas; a weekend getaway from Groupon, for instance, might be something to consider getting a spouse, close friend, or family member.  When Leon took me to New York for my 29th birthday, it was an incredible time for us to take a mental break from D.C., eat some good NY style pizza, and have some quality time together.  We didn’t have to leave the country (although we hope to do more international travel together soon) to have a travel adventure, and it was a birthday I’ll never forget.

To be sure, Christmas gifts are not the reason why we celebrate Christmas–we celebrate the birth of Christ.  Presents, in their purest form, are simply a conduit through which we can show our affection and appreciation for loved ones, by gifting them with things that they’ll enjoy (hopefully–there is a reason why re-gifting happens frequently).

Not that our Savior wouldn’t have an appreciation for travel items.  After all, He was a traveler Himself, from the time when Joseph and Mary escaped from Bethlehem to Egypt with baby Jesus during the reign of King Herod.

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I secretly miss trick-or-treating on Halloween.  When I was a kid in Texas, it was a fun excuse to dress up in a crazy costume and have your parents escort you to the neighbors’ houses to gather a giant pillowcase filled with treats.

My brothers and I had a tradition where, after every trick-or-treat session, we’d convene a “meeting” upstairs in the game room and dump out all of our treasures to do inventory.  There would always be the usual suspects like Snickers, or healthy stuff given out by the “fitness mommies,” like granola bars, or the random toothbrushes given out by our older neighbors (I guess to send a message that candy would give us cavities).  Andrew, Taylor, and I would then operate a free market of sorts, bartering and trading away what candy we didn’t like for the ones we wanted.  We had it down to a science–Andrew didn’t like chocolate very much and I did, I didn’t really care for Starburst and he loved them, and Taylor would pretty much eat everything.  Those were my memories of Halloween.

Now, as other adults can attest, Halloween just isn’t the same.  Let’s face it–grown men or women going trick-or-treating is, well, a sign that you haven’t quite gotten the message that it’s for kids.  There are Halloween parties, of course, where you can still dress up in crazy costumes, but to me it just isn’t the same.

Thinking about Halloweens I spent as a child made me wonder about the actual history and international practice of the day.  So, I did some research.

According to the History Channel’s website, the history of Halloween goes back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in what is now modern-day Ireland, the UK, and northern France, and they celebrated their new year on November 1 (hence why Halloween takes place on October 31).  November 1 apparently symbolized the end of the summer, a.k.a. harvest time, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.  The Celts believed that, the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts returned to cause all sorts of mischief.

To combat this mischief, the Druids (Celtic priests) would build giant bonfires for crop and animal sacrifices to try to deter the crazy ghosts, and the Celts would wear costumes and hang out by the bonfire.  Of course, instead of dressing up like Nicki Minaj or Charlie Sheen (this year’s most popular Halloween costumes), the Celts would throw on some animal skins and call it good.

From the rest of the research I did, it sounds like modern Halloween traditions in Ireland and Canada are similar to the ones in the U.S., namely trick-or-treating for kids and costume parties for adults.  Interestingly, in Ireland they still light bonfires in rural areas, much like their Celtic ancestors.

In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and Spain, All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2 as a religious holiday to honor martyrs and the deceased; it involves a three-day festival that starts on October 31.  Some families in these regions build altars to the dead, namely deceased relatives, and decorate the altars with candy, flowers, photos, food, and drinks.  Candles are also lit “to help the deceased find the way home.”  As well, many relatives visit family graveyards and tidy up the areas to honor their predecessors.

Interesting to note as well:  In England, during the Protestant Reformation, Halloween celebrations pretty much faded out.  I did notice that, when I lived in London, people had costume parties and such, but it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is in the States.  Instead, the Brits tend to focus on Guy Fawkes Day.  On the night of November 5, bonfires are lit up all around England, and you might even see some fireworks shows.  Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the execution of the infamous traitor, Guy Fawkes, who was sentenced to death on November 5, 1606, after trying to blow up England’s parliament building. In some parts of England kids walk around asking for “a penny for the guy,” which is apparently their version of trick-or-treating.

Long gone are my days of trick-or-treating and convening the “Great Candy Barter” with my brothers, but I still look back on those Halloweens with fondness.  Halloween was a time to stay out past your bedtime on a school night, eat too many sweets, and frantically brush your teeth so that the next dentist visit would not be torture.  This year, Halloween falls on a Monday, and my crazy plans will probably involve getting home from work and going to bed early.  I might sneak in a few pieces of candy though.

 

The inspiration for today’s blog came, randomly, from my medicine cabinet.

To backtrack, last weekend was a busy, fun-filled time in Chicago and South Bend with my friend Esther and at the Notre Dame football game with Leon’s friends.  As I wrote in my last post, taking a trip to both a big city and smaller city can feel like you’re taking two trips in one, and this was no exception.  Leon and I did everything that weekend from chow down on Chicago deep dish pizza to tailgate to enjoy the sight of Indiana’s picturesque farmland.

When we got back to D.C., it was time to jump into another busy week.  Leon had a conference in North Carolina all week, and I had several things going on at work.  Not to mention that it rained all week in D.C. and the Metro was plagued with problems, meaning endless delays and listening to unnerved fellow passengers describe their frustrations in choice words.

Needless to say, Friday morning I was pretty tired.  I stood in front of my bathroom mirror getting ready for work, when I asked myself the question that I ask every morning:  What do I want to smell like today?

Scientists say that scent and memory are connected, and I can say without a doubt that it’s true.  This morning, for instance, I reached for my bottle of Shalimar perfume–sandlewood, vanilla, and musk blended into a warm scent that reminds me of my childhood in Texas.  My mother has worn Shalimar since she was a teenager, and I started wearing it as a child as well.  Whenever I miss my family or my homeland, it brings me comfort to spray on some of that scent I smelled so much growing up.

After I spritzed myself with Shalimar this morning, I thought about other scents that hold special meaning. There’s Love Spell, the body splash from Victoria’s Secret that my friends and I were obsessed with in college and that smells, according to my former coworker Ken, like “a Strawberry Patch doll.”  Whenever I smell smoky incense, I am transported back to Asia or northern Africa–I still have incense sticks that I picked up at markets in Egypt, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, and whenever I need a taste of the exotic I use one of those.  Smelling anything from the store Lush, especially the fantastic pink-hued “Rock Star” soap, makes me reminisce about graduate school days in London.  Lavender takes me back to France, where the purple stalks grow everywhere and perfume the air itself.  Prada’s Amber perfume reminds me of a girls’ trip with my mother and sister-in-law through Italy; its distinct scent reminds me of strolling through the winding cobblestone streets of Europe.

Those are just a few examples, but it underscores the notion that scents appeal to our deepest sensibilities, often comforting us when we need comforting, lifting our spirits, and reminding us of pleasant memories.

These days we live in a much more globally interconnected world, and it is common for one to have friends scattered everywhere.  Thanks to modern technology, it’s easier to keep up with each other than it used to be.  It is wonderful to know that, whether they live in London or Seoul,  I can Skype with friends and even see their faces over webcam.

One blessing of being a traveler, or being internationally minded wherever you live, is to have friendships with people from different places and different cultures.  Some of my best friends to this day hail from England, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Poland, Bulgaria, and Mexico.  I’ve learned more from them than I can recount–Hae Chin teaching me about the intricacies of Korean culture, Kora taking me to her favorite drinking chocolate place in Warsaw, Sonja showing me the progress that Belfast has made in post-war years.  They are all dear friends, confidantes, teachers, and guides, and they have made traveling truly fulfilling.

This week one of my best friends that I met at King’s College London, Ileana, is coming to visit from Guadalajara.  We met our first day of graduate school, during orientation for the International Relations Masters students.  Olof, another close friend, Ileana, and I had struck up a conversation during one the breaks and ended up having lunch together.  After orientation we took a stroll and sat on a bench down by the Thames, talking about how excited we were to be in graduate school and how wonderful London was.

It’s always fun to reminisce about when you met a certain friend and what memories you hold of that individual.  With Ileana, after that first meeting during orientation came many adventures–exploring and getting lost in London, going down to Brighton for my birthday, fulfilling mutual lifelong dreams of visiting the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, going to Greece with our other friend Sy and riding donkeys down the caldera of Santorini, and many more.  I stayed with Ileana and her family for a few days in Guadalajara before reporting to language classes in Buenos Aires in 2008, which is the last time we saw each other in person and therefore means that we are far overdue for a reunion.  So, starting this weekend, it will be my turn to show her around my neck of the woods.

It’s always fun to visit friends overseas, and in turn to have friends visit from overseas. Friendships in general that are able to be picked up right where you left them, as if no time passed between visits, are truly a blessing in life.  Throw scenarios in which the friendships are international in nature into the mix, and you have even more of a unique dynamic.

Of course, if only plane tickets weren’t so expensive and time so limited, the unique dynamic of international friendships would be able to be enjoyed more often.  I guess what ultimately counts, though, is appreciating the time that you do have together.  And appreciating the fact that you have a couch to crash on when you do make the trip.

 

I’m what you might call a “quotes person.”  I love great quotes.  From Jane Austen to Jack Handy to Bible verses, I have different quotes scribbled in my planner and other notebooks.  Some are uplifting, some thought-provoking, and others humorous. The act of writing down quotes to refer to later, in my mind, is like gathering little scraps of wisdom or humor to create a literary collage.

Sometimes a gem of a quote will randomly appear, and in today’s case it turned up in my Twitter feed:

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” –Robert Stevenson

In typical 21st century style, I retweeted the pearl of wisdom and posted it as my Facebook status.  My friend Kora, also a quotes kind of gal, immediately commented that she was going to “steal” it for her status as well.  Other friends “Liked” the quote almost as soon as I hit the “Post” button.

This quote perfectly sums up what so many travelers struggle to explain when asked why they love to travel or why on earth they have wanderlust or, my personal favorite, why they still have the travel bug even after going on a trip.  Stevenson hit the nail on the head–we travel for travel’s sake.

Indeed, it is the act of traveling–the full experience step by step–that we love. From making travel arrangements to researching the destination to arriving at the airport, each logistic forms part of an adventure.  Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but I love airports.  I love knowing that it’s the place where you go to be transported to anywhere in the world.  When I get on the plane and settle into my seat, armed with fashion and celebrity magazines (my favorite guilty pleasure), I feel relaxed and my mind seems to automatically clear.  Then, while flying, it feels like you’re suspended above the entire world, literally and figuratively.  I’ve had some great moments of clarity and epiphanies on airplanes, probably because my mind truly has a chance to chill.

Travelers appreciate the process of adventure existent in the entire journey to whatever place you’re trying to reach.  One of my favorite memories is from a time when I was heading from Seoul to Rome via Paris.  It was, as Stevenson said, “the great affair of moving.”  I ate breakfast in Seoul and spoke Korean, grabbed lunch in Paris and attempted to dust off my French, and switched over to Italian upon ordering diner in Rome.  Every aspect of that journey was a rush, not just the act of arriving to my final destination.

Perhaps that is why travelers often struggle with that restless urge to take off somewhere far away.  In essence, I think Stevenson got it right.  We love the thrill of moving, and traveling allows us to do that.

 

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