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Wednesday, 09 November 2011

Getting Comfortable in an Airport

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It was now three in the morning. I watched my reflection in the glass as I tried to get comfortable under the green Alitalia blanket I had stuffed in my bag on the flight over. It was too short, and I was trying to decide what was more important to cover: my feet, or my face. My body wriggled on the marble slab, looking like an oversized caterpillar. Behind me, she started again, but with much more gusto.

“Vai viaaa! Vai viaaa!” she moaned. Go awayyy! And then she would hack up a lung before going quiet for a moment, then beginning the broken record again. She was directing this banter at the man that had set up camp next to her; apparently too close for comfort. Occasionally he would spat back a Stai Zitto! (shut up) but she would carefully explain in toothless Italian that she would if he wasn’t a horrible person that had stolen her liquor. Her voice was aged with cigarette smoke. She had sectioned off a corner of the airport corridor for herself; barricading it with blankets and trash bags. He had a bathrobe and a sleeping bag that had seen better days. She had won the fort competition, but apparently he had won in the fight the night before, with a bottle of alcohol being the victor’s cup. Now, she was angry. I wanted to cry.

 I thought I had picked a quiet spot to spend my night in Fumicino Airport before my flight home, but apparently it was quite the opposite. Who knew the airport was a popular humble abode for the homeless in the area? Welcome to the life of the budget traveler. I have spent many nights in airports, and have learned to fall asleep on chairs, floors, busses, boats, cars, planes, and trains. More often than not, the connecting transportation from one destination to another doesn’t add up quite right when budgeting, which makes for much down time in places you don’t particularly want to be. Make the most of it. Don’t simply sit there and complain. Here are a few ideas:
      
1. Always bring a journal and a pen (never forget the pen or you’ll cry.) A journal doesn’t need to be plugged in to write on. This is especially awesome in a place where the architects decided plugs were not necessary – for example: Fumicino. With a journal you can start your travel writing, draw, write letters to home, etc.

2. Find a place off the beaten path if you have enough time. Once when waiting outside of Termini train station in Rome, I wandered until I found a free admission park full of ruins. I sat by a fountain and watched as Italian couples roamed the paths until I had to catch my train.

3. Talk. Everyone is going somewhere wherever you’re stuck. Some have pretty interesting stories. I’ve met a semi-pro soccer player with dreams of moving to Europe to find a team, a vet that had illegally stayed in Africa to rehabilitate monkeys, a woman who had retired and decided to see as much as the world as she could before she died, an Italian that had taken up residency in an Irish hostel until he was fluent in English, and an Australian that traveled wherever the surf was good.  These are only a couple on the list. You’d be surprised at what stories are in your reach. You just have to initiate them.

4. Sudoku or crosswords. Can’t beat em.

5. Read, read, read. Find a book that you know in a language you don’t. If you know the story, and have the copy in your native language, you can read them side by side and learn!

6. If all else fails, sleep. In airports, if you’re lucky, you can find a row of those horrible chairs. BUT! You can make these into a bed if you’re agile. Simply squeeze under the arms and it becomes a sort of a futon. Disregard the horrible looks you get from hogging the set. They’re just jealous they didn’t think of it first. In busses, I prefer the knees-up-on-the-seat-in front. Just make sure you get the pressure on the chair before the person in the row in front of you sits. If they don’t feel the change, they’ll never know you’re pushing the chair forward in the first place. This also works in an airplane and a train, but if you get two seats to yourself, you’re golden. Stretch on out and enjoy!

Monday, 31 October 2011

City of Stars

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        My heart races as we turn corners going too fast, but I can’t tell the speed because my mind can’t calculate the difference between miles and kilometers quick enough.


        “Daiiii!” Pleasseee! I playfully beg with the driver, an Italian with jet black hair and light blue eyes. My friends told me they think he could be dangerous. They said I should be careful, being in another country. All were worried, and stayed in our little apartment blasting American music and drinking too much cheap wine. None knew Italian. None wanted to know Italians. But I ran through the narrow alleys painted with graffiti to meet him anyway, and now he’s driving me towards a surprise. He laughs at my plea to slow him down and punches the little car up the hill faster. I am flying without wings.


       Giacomo knows almost no English except for lyrics to his favorite American songs and the words “hello,” “washing machine” (because he thinks it’s amusing), and “girl”, my nickname. I speak to him in Italian, asking him again to tell me where we are going. “Aspetta, girl.” Wait, he tells me, and I pretend to pout as we climb the mountain side on the wheels of a dirty, white Italian Fiat. I close my eyes and listen to him changing gears, and feel the switchbacks on the narrow road we ascend. We had left the cobblestone roads of the city hours ago. Now the pavement is smooth, the air is colder. My heart races as adrenaline pumps through my body. I look down at my leather boots and skin tight jeans. This place has transformed me into an Italian-American hybrid. My instructors tell me I’m losing my American accent when I speak Italian. I wear too much eyeliner. I can maneuver my stilettos between the cracks of the cobblestones instead of falling into them. I want to smoke cigarettes.


       Giacomo slows the car and maneuvers us onto the edge of the cliff at the top of the mountain and turns to me, anticipating my reaction.


        I look out onto Ascoli, its medieval towers illuminated in the night; encircled with dark arms of the two rivers that kept the town safe from enemies in the centuries before. I look over to him and he smiles at me, knowing I approve. It is like constellations on the ground he says to me, it is like the stars have fallen from the sky and created a city. I agree with him. And this is my home for now;  La citta delle stelle. The city of stars.
      
       My time in Ascoli Piceno, Italy educated me in Italian culture far more outside of my classes than within them. I drove up to the rooftops of the world with Italians, not a tour bus. I had Italian friends. I shopped in their stores. I ate the local food, and ordered it in Italian. This is what is needed when traveling. Instead of sitting at the first restaurant you see, take a side road, take a back road, and ask the locals where to eat. You’d be surprised what you find. If you’re staying for a decent amount of time, live like them. Be a chameleon. Buy an outfit that you can fade into the background in. Watch the world around you go by without attracting attention to yourself as a tourist. If the women all wear heels simply to walk around their daily errands, you wear heels not flip flops. If the women are more covered in the culture, cover more. Learn enough of the language to get by, and don’t be afraid to use it. It is simple to ask how much something is, even if the person you’re talking to speaks English. Break down the tourist stereotypes and step into a world you aren’t comfortable in. Listen, learn, and love.


       The world is different to the tourist and the traveler. Which one will you pick?


 

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and looks at me, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my faded blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and his back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No, you are too strong. Paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

            “Stand up!” he demands under his Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him. I push out into the waves again, pulling against the surge. He smiles as I paddle to him, and shakes his head when I gracefully sit up on my board.

“You could never be Muslim, Lisa, but it is possible for you to be Moroccan.”

 

Cinnamon Rainbows is the surf shop in North Hampton, NH. I walk in and a bell jingles my arrival. The surf off the coast of New Hampshire is flat today. There is no one in the store except for a young couple looking at bathing suits. I wander back up the stairs of the little wooden building to the rows of surfboards. I touch each one, wishing I was on the other side of the ocean, wishing Mounir was with me to tell me what one I needed, wishing he would tease with me about my pale skin, that I’m almost as white as the boards here. I hear him in my head as I stand on the opposite side of our ocean. ‘You are white, Lisa,’ he said. ‘You need to change colors. Stay with me in Taghazout. You will change the colors of your skin, I will teach you how to surf like me, and you will be happy.’

 I’m adrift in my own sea of ambivalence. I second guess myself. Always. I wonder if somewhere, I have made the wrong turn, took the road less traveled, when I should have taken the one that was waiting to be discovered. I’m a rebel. I’m a woman without a destination. I’m a lost soul in the pages of a travel magazine, wedged between the centerfold images of palm trees and snow-covered mountains, nestled in between the italicized words of Italiano, Francais, Deutch. Tiptoeing on the graceful lines of  العربية. Because I have that dreaded travel bug, yet it is not the one most describe. My travels do not set me on a bus full of Americans; impatiently waiting their turn to scoff at the locals and ask if “anyone speaks English” because they refuse to travel by the tides of the cultures. They want to see what they were told to see. Eiffel tower, Coliseum, Great Wall of China, Rainforests. They refuse to eat local dishes, and believe that anyone that cannot understand their language is below them, stupid. But I know better.

 

The surf boards are piled in the surf shack on the rocky New England coastline. It is colder than normal for an October day. It is the end of the popular surf season. The plastic is dull from a summer of use; the colors beneath the wax are not as bright in the shadows of a New England fall.

“Can I help you?” the employee had followed me. His hair is long and blonde, tossed back from his forehead in sunglasses. I smile back but decline his offer, leaving him and the shack on the side of the road until next summer, when my skin will again change colors and I may be able to control the riptides of my heart.

҉

My life is full of happiness - sitting on the edges of the earth, watching the waves kiss the shore, promising new beginnings. But my heart beats to the rhythm of a congregation of cultures, each their own color upon my soul. They say ignorance is bliss. I'm beginning to agree. For I strike a chisel on my heart each time my eyes pass over a new horizon. With every language that floods my senses and every hand that embraces mine I grow, I change, I fall, but I come alive again.

 I am returning to my second home a year after I first stepped foot into the Medieval city’s piazzas. My time living and studying in the small town of Ascoli Piceno, Italy apparently was not enough. I did not expect to be back here, not so soon. But I had the opportunity, and my heart booked the tickets without telling my mind it was a poor decision. Now, I am rolling a suitcase down the sidewalk towards my old apartment – past the shoe store, past the old men sitting on the benches next to the church, their brown and grey hats and suits blending with the Tufa stone of its walls. Now I am hearing the sounds of Italian as my heels click over the stone and it echoes through the narrow strada, the streets that I had grown to love so much.

Now I am on the old swing, tied up on a tired tree that lets its leaves touch the surface of the electric blue water. My toes barely skim the surface, gliding back and forth over the Italian river and letting the dam that had held back my memory of a language break upon my tongue. I pull at the rusted chains that let me fly and soar up and watch as my feet seem to touch the surrounding mountains, and then dive back down to the water. The breeze is warm. It is like I have never left. Italian floods my mouth again. I am remembering, my world. And suddenly I have visions of grey hair falling soft upon my face in Piazza Popolo with my grandchildren chasing pigeons, rattling off Italian that echoes on the stones laid by the Romans and under the eyes of Ascoliana. I see a small little house with stone flower boxes; vines clinging to the brick. I am airing out my rugs and hanging my laundry on a line. I have forgotten what a dryer is. I eat better. I am old but I am thin. I am healthy. I am more Italian than American.

My heart beats to a different rhythm here. My soul shines in the shadows of the mountains and reflections of the Aegean Sea. I have chosen to tear myself apart again by returning.

 

He calls me as I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home. There is sorrow in his voice.

Stai in italia. Viviamo insieme.” Stay Italy. We can live together.

Non posso.” I can’t.

I can’t. I can’t.

I am a drifting soul. I have to choose. I have to choose and I know I’ll always be getting on that plane with its nose pointed toward Boston. I know Europe will slip back into my memories as something that is too perfect to be real. Something that is almost unreachable. Because - I am American. Sono Americana. Per sempre. For always, forever. I know my tears will dry by the time I see Boston outside my airplane window, and  I’ll run into the arms of a veteran Marine, and I’ll call my mother and my brother and I’ll smile because I’ll be home. But I will hesitate at least once, and wish I could turn, wish I could fly back for just one more day, just one more week. I’ll look over my shoulder and wonder.

But when I am older and my grey hair surrounds my face, and the skin around my eyes wrinkles from the years of New England sun, I know that I will still sit on the end of my world as the ocean tags the shore. My heart will strain under my chest and I’ll wonder if I have taken the right path, wonder if my dreams were truly impossible, and wonder if I would be happier if I was standing on the other side of the ocean. Home. My heart beats to the rhythm of each letter. I dig my feet deeper into the New England soil.

 

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Shifting Paradigms

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How many times have you found yourself wishing that you could just stay on vacation and not return to “real life?” Unless you are fabulously wealthy, the possibility of and endless vacation is well out of reach. The word vacation itself carries connotations of getting away, relaxation, doing and experiencing things that you wouldn’t normally. Often while visiting a faraway land, it is all to easy to fall in love with the romance of the location; waves lapping at a lush coastline, rolling green hills spotted with livestock and colorful outbreaks of flowers, ancient winding streets lined with narrow houses and small shops, a crisp and modern skyline, forests and mountains so plentiful they seem to have consumed all surrounding landscape; the list goes on forever.

Something about visiting a new location draws our eyes only to the magnificent and beautiful, blocking out the “real life” that exists in all places, regardless how romantic the backdrop. Consciously or subconsciously, we look past the people out sweeping the streets, hanging out laundry, commuting to and from work and, in general, just going about day-today existence. Stepping out of the role of visitor and into that of resident involves more than just a change of visa, but a complete shift in paradigm.

Within our own cities and towns, we are often remiss to take advantage of attractions that draw others from out of town. Whether this oversight is related to lack of time or interest or the feeling that it is already familiar, it is often we who are missing out on the jewels that rest at our fingertips. This malaise is also found in the residents of the locations that we so covet and flock to.

As far as “great explorations” go, I would have to say that I am not much of a traveler. The number of stamps I have in my passport is less than the number of states that I have visited in the past decade, hardly breaking double digits. Despite this fact, I have spent three of the last five years living outside of the US. For most of the three years, I lived on the remote archipelago of Cape Verde in West Africa working as an English teacher for both youth and adults and, during the third year, traveling around the country to research and write a travel guide for Other Places Publishing.

The diversity of the small country of Cape Verde often surprised me as I traveled from island to island, rocky coastline village to isolated plantations nestled away in the mountains. The thing that surprised me most, however, was how differently I viewed the same landscapes and locations from the many tourists that I met along the way. While we were all delighted by the physical beauty of the islands, by speaking the language, listening into conversations and looking beyond the strips of businesses set up to catch the wave of tourism, I saw an entirely different Cape Verde.

This issue of paradigm comes into play again as I am currently staying in Glasgow, Scotland. Though I am here for an extended visit, I would hardly consider myself a tourist. Living in the South Side of the city, I am a regular commuter by bus and train, I buy my groceries at the various local shops, I spend a fair amount of time scouring the local area for a decent coffee and occasionally visit the odd museum, all in all, not much different than my life in the US. Though the Glasgow accent is thick and often difficult to decipher, it is easy enough to get by. Much of the news and popular culture overlaps with that of the US and values, etiquette and education are largely similar. Like everywhere else in the world, there is wealth and there is poverty, there are conflicts and there are people working together, cities differ from towns, adults go to work and children go to school. Despite these similarities, it is the subtle differences that frequently remind me that I am not at “home.”

Perhaps the moral of the story here is that there is always more depth to our circumstances than we are able to perceive. The idea of “home” and “away” is as much our own paradigm as it is location. Though I had lived in Cape Verde for almost three years, established myself in the community and was able to communicate and get around with ease, it was only my perspective that made me “less” of a foreigner than the tourists I encountered. We avoid being tourists in our own towns because that is what outsiders do and often we avoid the commonplace while away as an “escape,” but perhaps we would all do good to incorporate a bit more of both in all locations. After all, appreciating bits of beauty while mucking in the mundane is what makes us all human, regardless of where we are.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Travel Safety for Women

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In many parts of the world, life is not easy for women. The recent report released by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation through Trust Law lists the five most dangerous countries for women. These countries were chosen by 213 gender experts on five continents and are based on a variety of considerations including the risk factors of health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural and religious factors, lack of access to resources including health care and education and human trafficking.

The countries listed in descending order are Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia. The reasons listed are as diverse as the countries and include conditions and fatality rate during childbirth, incidents of rape and sexual assault-up to 1,500 a day in Congo, “honor killings,” female genital mutilation-up to 95% of women in Somalia, illiteracy rate-up to 87% in Afghanistan, and lack of power in matters ranging from marriage to politics. These conditions are difficult for many to imagine and, considering the overlap of many of the countries with the list of dangerous travel destinations, most of these countries are probably not a destination of choice in the near future.

Fortunately, women traveling will generally not encounter these specific threats, but there are typically more risks for female travelers. The recent assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Egypt is a testament that even seasoned female travelers are vulnerable to threats such as sexual assault. Despite threats and almost universal unwanted attention, this does not mean that women should be fearful of travel, but rather informed and careful.

One of the first things that women can do to ensure their safety while traveling abroad is to start with research about the country’s history and statistics of crime against female visitors. The US State Department website offers up-to-date statistics on the political stability of the country, crime and potential threats to tourists. This is a good place to start, but it may also be wise to look for blogs and reports by other female travelers for a more personal review. Though it is a bit outdated, Jessica Labrencis and RaeJean Stokes offer a fairly comprehensive report on the the best and worst destinations for women worldwide.

Once a destination is chosen, research of hotels and the surrounding area is equally important. While a larger hotel may feel safer through familiarity, a smaller environment affords more personal interaction between the guest and staff and the staff will be more likely to recognize when someone is unwanted or unwelcome. Women may want to look for privacy, but avoid isolation. The location of the hotel within the city or village is possibly more important since it is desirable to be near destinations and can be dangerous to walk for long stretches alone to and from the hotel.

It is not just women that need to be wary of pickpockets and muggers, but since women are perceived as more vulnerable, it is important for them to be aware when venturing into busy areas. To avoid looking lost, get a solid understanding of the area before heading out and carry just a small backup map. Pickpockets tend to thrive in busy areas like bus stops, train stations and markets. When in these areas, it is wise to wear a discreet money belt or carry money and important documents in a couple of locations on your body. Many times, walking with confidence and with your head up will deter an attacker.

Unfortunately, women abroad and in the United States are often victim to unwanted attention and sexual harassment and assault. While there is nothing that can be done to entirely prevent this from happening, there are many small things that women can do to reduce the chances and protect themselves. When traveling within a different culture, the old saying When in Rome, do as the Romans is quite pertinent. The best way to gauge how women are treated and how they react is to observe them. While this can be helpful in a number of foreign experiences and interactions, how local women react to unwanted male attention is undoubtedly the best defense. Women will also be your alley when they realize that you are not there to compete with them. Women should make an effort to associate themselves with local women, or, when traveling alone, stand near groups of women and families for increased security.

Before traveling, women should be aware of what upsets them and where they would draw the line. While living in Cape Verde for my third year, tired of unwanted attention, I intentionally wore a false wedding ring. This small gesture would not have stopped an assault, but it saved me the bother of many tedious conversations and physical discomfort. I also dressed more conservatively than I may have otherwise. When traveling, women should be aware that what would be considered comfortable and casual at home could easily become provocative or offensive upon crossing certain borders.

Aside from being informed and aware, one of the best things for women to do is to have an emergency escape plan. Part of the research of the local area should include resources such as police and public transportation. Women especially should be aware of when the sun rises and sets, avoiding being stranded far from the hotel at dusk. It is also advisable to carry a discreet stash of money for a taxi when this type of situation occurs. Despite potential risks, I absolutely advise women to travel, but to pack reason and caution along with sense and sensibility.


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