While browsing around in a thrift store in Williamsburg several years ago, I came across a box full of old photos and postcards. As I rifled through, I realized they were of no one in particular, just random people. I bought several, feeling mildly creepy but not enough to deter me from posting them on my bulletin board as if I were displaying members of my own family.
One photo I posted was of a group of family or friends spread out on beach blankets -- the women in one-pieces, the men in swim trunks. Another was of two older men in business attire in the sitting room of a house, next to a clear sliding porch door that led to a garden. I stared at these photos, wondering about the people in them, who were likely gone or very old, but also frozen of time.
A photo I found of a family or group of friends on a beach, in a box at a Williamsburg thrift store
Men in sitting room, another photo I found in a Williamsburg thrift store
I always find myself getting lost looking at photos like these, like the ones also of my own family from around the same era, many of which I acquired when my grandmother passed away in 2014. Some of my favorites from my grandma's collection: one of her and my grandfather sitting in a rocket-shaped car on an amusement park ride, another of my dad in the apartment we first lived in in Chicago, in the early 1980s, in front of a bare wall in a plaid shirt and big glasses.
My grandparents on an amusement park ride
My dad in the early 1980s
I was reminded of those photos by the hit independent play I recently saw Say Something Bunny created by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and Christopher Allen and performed by Kobayashi. The play offers us a window into a Jewish family from the 1950s through today, through old recordings Kobayashi discovered and extensive historical research into them.
The evening begins a bit like mystery theater, with audience members choosing our seats around a massive table that feels like we are in a a conference room or on the set of Dr. Strangelove. Kobayashi tells us to take out a script from a cubby underneath the table in front of us, on which Say Something Bunny is printed. She assigns us each a role, and proceeds to play for us two conversations on a wire recorder involving a family, the Newburges. In the first, the Newburges are spending dinner in 1952 with neighbors who are getting ready to move to the Philadelphia suburbs. In the second, we are with the Newburge family around Thanksgiving.
Kobayashi, a found objects artist, acquired the wire recorder, a now obsolete technology that was overtaken by the more functional tape recorder, through friends who purchased it at an estate sale. It belonged to David Newburge, the eldest son, who was using his wire recorder to tape these two get togethers. Though there are over 20 voices on the recorder, Kobayashi manages to identify each person through extensive research that would include U.S. Census records, college yearbooks and newspapers, and research on popular theater during the 1950s-70s.
My role in Say Something Bunny as Sidney, the father in the family who are the Newburges' neighbors
A Cornell newspaper that Kobayashi found in aid of learning more about her central character, David Newburge
For those reluctant to participate, do not worry, we are not actually required to read the lines of our character -- rather we just follow along. Kobayashi will every so often speak to us as if we are that character. She frequently interrupts the recording to segue into background about each of the characters that she has gathered from research. At the end, audience members leave feeling blown away, perhaps even a little jarred, having explored themes of history and memory, Jewish assimilation and culture in America, family, and the fleetingness of time.
All of this comes out of a play that is built around two fairly unremarkable conversations among a family and their friends. We probably have equally unremarkable conversations like this at our own get togethers. But there is something interesting in learning how others, especially those in generations we can no longer access, spent the quotidian and banal moments of their lives.
Kobayashi's play will fascinate anyone, but I think it especially hooks those of us who have a tendency to go down rabbit holes into corner pockets of history, digging through, say, boxes of photos of strangers in Brooklyn thrift shops. Most of us come up after being submerged in this kind of a deep dive feeling like we wasted time. Maybe we mention it sheepishly to a few friends, but usually we try to move on to something more productive. Fortunately for us, Alison Kobayashi went down that rabbit hole, and came out with Say Something Bunny.
I returned yesterday from a two week vacation to the southwest of France, Amsterdam, and Berlin. It was a combination that I chose for personal reasons. I arranged through WWOOF France to work on a vineyard in the Lot-et-Garonne region, to learn more about wine, French (and in particular Gascogne) culture, and improve my French. It was an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life and hope to build on.
Pichon vineyard in St. Leon, France, where I worked
A week later I visited a friend from my Washington, D.C. days who now lives in Amsterdam and has an amazingly vast knowledge of the city. I can't imagine ever being able to keep all of the canals straight, but he does. The city is beautiful, well-organized, a bicyclist's paradise -- all in all a delightful feat of engineering and imagination.
A houseboat along one of the canals in Amsterdam seen during our motor boat ride
And finally, I ended in Berlin, where I've wanted to visit for years, having heard often it's one of the coolest cities there is. I actually spent two weeks staying with a family in the East of the city through an exchange program organized for my high school German class -- my first time in Europe -- and was also curious what I would remember. The combination of that sentimental value, my family's history in Germany (my grandma's German Jewish family emigrated in 1937 to escape the Third Reich), Berlin's unconventionality for a European capital, and a truly novel vibe and mix of people affected me in a way I didn't expect. I'll write more on all in future posts.
Sunset at Berlin's Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg neighborhood
The Calanques between Cassis and Marseille in the South of France are one of the top sites in that area, so last summer while in that region, I knew I had to see them. I began researching on the internet, finding that there are several ways to get to them but uncertain about which to go with. The following is an account of why getting advice from someone on the ground is often a better guide even than what one reads on the internet (though it does not hurt to research in advance).
The Calanques are a series of limestone cliffs that form narrow inlets along the Mediterranean Sea. They appear similar to karsts in Norway. The various blogs and travel boards I read debated the merits of seeing the Calanques by a chartered boat, a kayak, or on a hike, with most focusing on the boat option. Several companies offer trips in motorboats or catamarans in which you sail by some or all of the calanques, depending on which tour you chose. From what I had heard, these tours did not allow swimming in the inlets. With hiking you could swim because you would arrive right on the rocky beach inlet. Yet boating seemed to be the more popular option, so when I arrived in Cassis I was prepared to find a chartered boat trip leaving from the port.
However, a young staff member at Cassis Hostel, where I was staying, strongly recommended hiking and seemed almost surprised that I would take a boat. He said I should hike out to the third Calanque, d’enVau, which was the prettiest. As I sat by the hostel pool later that night getting information from people, it seemed that just about everyone had hiked to the Calanques. They warned that it was hot and that I should bring water, but no one seemed to have considered boating as an option, so I decided I would hike.
The market in Cassis
I set off the next day a little before 9 am with a light backpack, water bottle, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, a book, and a small cheese knife I had bought in Aix-en-Provence (when it became clear I'd be stopping by markets and buying hunks of cheese). I went first to Cassis's market (Wednesdays and Fridays at Place Baragnon). Like every market I had been to in the South of France, there were stalls of seasonal vegetables, olives, cheese, and meats. I made what had become my standard market purchase of a basket of cherry tomatoes, a bag of olives, a hunk of cheese, a hunk of meat, some bread, and some fruit. I was set.
Setting out on the hike
Then I headed west, walking out of town, following signs and the map I had through a quiet, well-heeled neighborhood of past vacation homes. Occasionally I’d see people in front—a woman with her kids in the kiddy pool or a couple walking into their home from the car. A small number of hikers were following the same path. I finally reached the end of the sidewalk portion of the hike, and joined what seemed to be many more hikers, making what felt like a pilgrimage. We began to see blue down below, and sailboats.
After the stretch, we came to a sign that said Calanque de Port-Miou -- the hit Calanque. People broke off, finding their spots on the rock beach. People were swimming, snorkeling, or perched on the cliffs alongside the clear water . But I had to continue, as I had two more Calanques to go.
With the sizable chunk of hikers who hadn't split off, I walked up a cliff. I thought to myself that so far, this was much easier than Breakneck Ridge back in the Hudson Valley, and I didn't understand why they had warned against hiking on some of the websites I had read. Little did I know.
When we got to the second calanque, Calanque de Port Pin, many more people broke off. I was tempted to join them and install myself at that beach. But the hostel worker’s promise of the third Calanque kept me going.
The hike between Port Pin and d’en Vau is where things got rigorous. The path became rocky, mostly loose rocks, stones, and pebbles, which meant I had to be careful walking, especially downhill, so not to trip. The ascent up the third cliff was tiring, and there were now only a small number of hikers. It, was peaceful but hot, with the sun beating down, and my water going quickly. Craggy limestone and shrubs surrounded me.
Once reaching the top, and after a bit of time walking on fairly level surface, I had to climb back down, which in some ways was scarier because of the loose rocks. I was glad that despite the heat I had worn my hiking boots. Finally, I reached a white dirt path. People were walking from the other direction, and that seemed like a good sign. Sure enough I came to a sign: “Les calanques vous accueillent. Protegez les Ramenez vos déchets. The calanques welcome you. Please protect them. Bring your garbage back with you." (There are no garbage cans at the calanque).
What I saw next made the walk worth it: a dramatic inlet, azure water, and people lying in the warm sun on bright towels.
I found a spot near one side of the inlet, set up my towel, and took out a baguette, cheese, and the trustee cheese knife I’d purchased. I looked out into the sea, where ahead there were sunbathers, swimmers, and sailboats. It felt like the setting of a French impressionist painting. I went out to swim in the refreshing waters and then returned to my towel, reading my book, falling in and out of a nap, and hearing the different languages spoken around me--French, of course, something that could have been Danish or Dutch, Italian. I silently thanked the guy at the hostel for guiding me in the right direction.
On the way back, somewhere after passing Calanque Port Pin, and nearing civilization, I treated myself to an Orangina being sold at a food and drink stand -- the only one along the whole trail -- glad I was at the end of the hike and not the beginning.
For those of us who are New York City transplants, we start to realize, as we stay here longer than we ever expected, that inherent New Yorker behaviors begin to accumulate, quietly and sometimes regrettably. We become unfazed by just about any event that occurs on the subway; we get used to the reckless aggression of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians and even become one of them; and we feel compelled to stay in our apartment even though we don't own it -- because apartment hunting is such a miserable alternative.
But one milestone that even I was surprised at happened today when I typed Poughkeepsie into a search engine. Not Pokipsie or Pukipsie or even one that's on the right track like Poukepsie, but Poughkeepsie. As I looked down at the word, realizing that I had for the first time typed it without having to rely on Google to correct the spelling, I couldn't imagine a day when I'd ever thought Poughkeepsie was spelled another way.
This past winter and spring, I traveled to four different American destinations, Taos, New Mexico; Vail, Colorado; Asheville, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas, each for pretty brief spurts of time. The clustering of trips was unplanned. I am someone who likes to spread out travel to have more time away for one vacation rather than less time for more vacations. I think this makes sense both from a financial standpoint—you spend less money on flights, which are one of the most expensive costs of travel— and because you get more out of a place and can actually feel like you’re on vacation. Traveling for only a few days at a time means that a greater proportion of your time is eaten up by traveling to and from airports. If you live in New York City, you know that traveling to the airport, whether by train, bus, or cab, will take a good chunk of time.
Two of these trips were for bachelorette weekends, and a third was for a film festival that my my friends got into. Since I was in these spots for a short time, I don’t have a lot to offer, but that doesn’t stop me from writing about it!
Taos, New Mexico
In New Mexico, I went skiing for two days with friends, went to some nice restaurants in Taos, and spent a day in the town of Taos and another in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as at a winery and vineyard between Taos and Santa Fe. My friends and I stayed at an Airbnb about 25 minutes of a drive from skiing. It had a nice long dining table and a comfortable main room with a big window looking out onto the parched valley as well as, of course, a hot tub. It’s worth visiting a winery in New Mexico, if only to see what a small operation it is. I went to La Chiripada Winery in Dixon, New Mexico, which felt more like someone’s house than a winery.
Recommendation Definitely go skiing at Taos. It’s much more reasonably priced than Vail (see below) and just as good of an experience, if not better. The restaurants and bars have a nicer ambience and are less expensive, and the skiing is great. Also check out Taos Pueblo, perhaps the oldest housing in the U.S.
At Taos Pueblo
Skip Santa Fe unless you’re doing a spa weekend with lady friends or have enough money to splash out on art. I was underwhelmed by this small city. It felt old and staid. I also went on a Monday which didn’t help. Read more about my travels in the Land of Enchantment.
The barren landscape of Taos
I went to Vail because my friends’ movie was chosen to show at city’s annual film festival and spent one day skiing the large mountain. We stayed at a surprisingly inexpensive condo that was about a 25 minute walk from the center of Vail and 15 minutes from Lionshead, The condo had TVs in every room, including a huge TV in the main room, generic but comfortable overstuffed furniture, and a small balcony. Our complex had not one but two very nice, clear blue hot tubs. We were across the street from a stop for the city’s free bus, which is a nice service, albeit a bit confusing.
Going up the lift on Vail’s large mountain
Recommendation If your goal is to go skiing in Colorado, I’d suggest looking somewhere a little cheaper and more memorable than Vail, which felt a bit like Disneyworld’s version of a Swiss ski town. It’s posh, expensive, and yet not that memorable. That said, I had a great experience with one of the staff at Vail, who helped me deal with a treacherous morning freeze and get up the energy to stay on the mountain rather than quitting early. When my friend and I were at a bar in Lionshead, the bartender told us that O.J. Simpson used to come there a lot. What as he like? We asked. Oh, he was nice, the bartender said. Did a lot of coke.
Christina Ricci and Julie Delpy on a panel at the Vail Film Festival
The Vail Film Festival was a lot of fun. It was small enough to not feel like it was overrun with industry types (not that I know what I’m talking about) but large enough to have a good variety of films. We even got to see a panel with Christina Ricci and Julie Delpy talking about the challenges of being female in Hollywood.
My friend Keith and I enjoying the good life of the Vail Film Festival hospitality lounge
Asheville, North Carolina
I have long heard that Asheville is a beautiful, hilly area in the western part of North Carolina with a reputation for breweries and hippie-ish liberalism. But like many cities that were possibly once weird (see Austin), Asheville felt to me pretty yuppy. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It had a nice downtown with good shopping and the countryside is very close. We went to a salt cave that was part of a spa, which is a manmade room of salt where you lie down for 45 minutes and absorb the atmosphere. I’m skeptical of its claims to health benefits, but lying down uninterrupted for 45 minutes with nothing to do but think or sleep is so rare that it was if nothing else a relaxing experience.
The old Woolworth Co. in downtown Asheville
Recommendation Definitely check out a brewery or two. We went to one of the most well-known in the area, Wicked Weed, and although it was busy and very much on the beaten path, the beer was excellent and interesting. I ordered two fruity beers—one with grapefruit, the other raspberry—and both were subtle enough to be enjoyable, and I’m not generally a big fan of sweet or fruity beers. Since I was in Asheville for a quick weekend bachelorette party, I didn’t get a full taste of the city or its lovely surroundings, but I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the bucolic surroundings.
I had never been to Texas, besides a layover in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport several years ago, so it was exciting just to be able finally set foot in the Lonestar State–again, for a bachelorette party. There are few other states that have cultivated such a strong identity as Texas, and yet, I didn’t find Austin to be as memorable as I’d hoped.
The lovely neighborhood where we stayed
That’s not to say I didn’t like it, nor is it to say I saw everything that was to be seen. People in Austin were friendly, and we met a lot of fellow out-of-towners, as we seemed to be on the bachelorette party circuit, since we went to Rainey Street and 6th Street in the evenings and water tubing during the day. On a Sunday morning I went on a run to the University of Texas, Austin, which was about 1.5 miles from our Airbnb house. Austin reminded me more of Los Angeles than any other U.S. city I have been to. It feels a bit sprawled and has a lot of outdoor restaurants and bars as well as beautiful people. As you’ll see pretty soon, Austin’s motto is “keep Austin weird.” If where I visited was any indication, Austin will have to work pretty hard against the yuppification to stay weird.
I did not go here but this spot, near UT-Austin, looked cool
Recommendation Austin was more urban than I expected, so I’d recommend deciding if you want to stay in the downtown area, which is closer to the nightlife, or out in a more residential part, as we did. We had to take an Uber-style car service just about everywhere, and it would have been fun to walk or cheaper to take public transit, but the latter is pretty limited.
We went tubing for $75 per person with a local company that bused us out to the San Marcos River and provided tubes for beer coolers–which is pretty much essential for tubing in Austin (or anywhere?). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to Barton Springs, Lady Bird Lake, South Congress. If I go back, I’d probably try to stay in the South Congress area to be near these sites. The nightlife I experienced in Austin on Rainey Street and 6th Street was pretty intense, and I don’t think it’s necessary to a good time in Austin, though Rainey Street by day is a nice collection of houses turned bars and restaurants.
UnBARlievable on Rainey Street
Austin is paddling upstream against yuppification to stay weird
Generalizations about America
It’s not worth traveling America if you can’t come away with a few generalizations, de Tocqueville-style, and here is what I observed in my bursts of American travel:
America has a ton of sprawl. From every highway it seems like the same collection: big box stores, Macaroni Grills and Applebee’s, outlet malls, and subdivisions that seem like they have sprung up over night.
There are still regional differences in our nation despite the uniformity of the sprawl. For one, the sprawl was much worse outside of Austin Texas than Albuquerque, New Mexico. People are more likely to wear cowboy hats in Texas and black in New York City.
Affluent parts of this country seem pretty similar to other affluent parts of the country, and do not have as much of a regional tinge to them. Vail, Colorado, reminded me for instance of Greenwich, Connecticut, just with fewer financial institutions.
Despite America’s great influence around the world, it does not feel like Americans have a strong American identity the way other countries like France or Germany do. I’m sure are size has a lot to do with it, but I think it also has a lot to do with this country’s historic individualism, which is reflected in many of our towns and cities, many of which lack a nice center. More than other countries, our aspirations are for things that isolate us from one another : cars, houses, and private schools. Plus we have such high wealth inequality, meaning that Americans are living drastically different lives from one another.
Living in New York City means you get used to life without large grocery stores, dishwashers and washing machines in your apartment, and spacious restaurants and bars that have multiple bathroom stalls. So traveling just about anywhere outside of our fair city is somewhat like going to a foreign country. It’s a nice vacation from the tight quarters we maintain around here.
Some states are very proud of their slogans (Florida’s ”The Sunshine State,” Texas’s “The Lonestar State).” Some states’ slogans make a political statement (D.C.’s “Taxation Without Representation,” New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”). Some states seem to have pulled theirs out of a hat (Connecticut’s “Full of Surprises,” North Dakota’s “Legendary”). And then there’s New Mexico, whose slogan is under the radar but clearly intentional. There’s a good chance you didn’t know that New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment” until you visit, and there’s a good chance you’ll agree with that characterization. I had never heard the slogan before, but once in New Mexico, it was everywhere, from the audio welcome recording on the rental car shuttle to t-shirts and other state merchandise, to of course, license plates.
New Mexico is certainly enchanting, and it is also under the radar, not accustomed to puffing itself up the way some other states do (I won’t name names). And for me, New Mexico has long been near the top of the list of U.S.
states I’ve wanted to visit. What has appealed to me its distinctness from other U.S. states, with its unique combination of Mexican, Spanish, and Native American heritage.
On top of that are the artist communities which sounded charming and protected. I imagined them as walkable little downtowns of adobe buildings with woven Native American rugs hanging over window sills.
And then there are is offbeat New Mexico: the off-grid movement, UFO sightings, geodesic domes, and all other signs that people were living and thinking differently than the rest of us. New Mexico’s weirdness has intrigued me in the way that cults intrigue me - in one sense they exist on the edge of society, but they address questions and build societies in response to questions we all ask ourselves. What would it be like to live unencumbered from the need for possession? to be able to live off the land? to not work a typical modern job? if there were a supernatural power? How can so many of us live with these questions and not act on them? And what does it look like to act on them?
I visited New Mexico for the first time in early February, on a ski trip with friends in Taos Ski Valley and a stop in Santa Fe. The photos directly below are of the road and property of the home we stayed at in the Taos Valley area. As you can see, the flatness in front of us gave a clear view of the mountains, specifically, the Sangre de Cristo.
Taos Ski Valley
The ski resort of Taos Ski Valley has a nice vibe to it. It was low-key and not super crowded, though still well-regarded. There seemed to be a lot of locals who come out all the time. In recent years, the resort has been spiffing up a bit, with some new or updated restaurants and bars. We particularly liked the Bavarian Restaurant, which was a basic German menu, with a few different types of wurst. We also liked the Hotel St. Bernard’s restaurant and Rathskeller Bar, which reminded me of a place where Cary Grant would have enjoyed a drink in North by Northwest.
I hadn’t skied in two years, and Taos is known for being
steep, but I managed to ski most of the greens and a couple of small stretches
of blue with only two falls where I lost a ski (and several other falls where skis stayed attached). By day two I was both high on skiing
and, by afternoon, so tired from falling that I realized I was liable to break a limb if I kept going. The
altitude, the falls, and the demands I was placing on a body usually accustomed to sitting in front of a desk in ergonomically lacking positions had
wiped me out – in a good way. There’s nothing better than feeling tired because you did something, as opposed to because you didn’t do something, which is also a tired I have felt.
Probably the most interesting thing to see in the town of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, a Native American village built in 1000 to 1450 with houses made of adobe that have stayed in tact (with maintenance) for all of this time, including a multi-storied building that could be called an adobe apartment complex. Right below is a photo looking out the entrance to the church front plaza. The Spanish built the church in the 1660s, though it was opposed by the native people of Taos.
Below is one of the adobe houses. Today many of them have been turned into stores that sell Native American art, jewelry, rugs, and other items. Each home has been handed down from generation to generation since people started living in the pueblos, although many of the Taos people now live offsite, in homes near the Pueblo.
While at the Taos Pueblo, my friend and I started talking with one of the store owners, a man with multiple lives. In the 1970s, he had toured with the Native American Theater Ensemble. When the Ensemble collaborated with the American Shakespeare Theater, he met and started dating Helen Mirren. They lived in the Upper West Side of New York City for several years, until he returned to New Mexico, because he was not a city person at heart. His dad was one of the leaders in the movement that successfully won back nearby Blue Lake land in 1970 through a bill passed by Congress and signed by Richard Nixon. The land had been taken during the Theodore Roosevelt administration and designated as part of the U.S. National Forest Service.
First Wine Region
When you think of American wine, you think of Napa, Sonoma,
Oregon, maybe the Finger Lakes and Virginia. What you don’t think of is New
Mexico. Yet New Mexico was the first region in the United States where human grew wine, at least according to the pourer who I met at La
Chiripada Winery, in Dixon, New Mexico, a slightly run down artist colony. I parked in the lot of La Chiripada Winery next to one
other car. I was the only one at La Chiripada during my tasting of several wines that I could choose (In fairness, it was a Monday around 12 PM).
The whites were mostly on the sweeter side, as it turns out
Rieslings do very well in New Mexico. The dryer of the whites I drank, the
Winemaker’s Select was a combination of Seyval/Vidal Blanc, and smaller amounts
of Chardonnay and Viognier. The pourer told me that some their combination
varietals, like the Seyval/Vidla Blanc, had grown together on the land in such a way that
they were no longer distinct. The reds were very light, especially the Canoncito
Red 2015 which was a combination of two grapes: Leon Millot and Baco Noir, which I had
never heard of. I ended up purchasing the Canoncito part (full
disclosure) it was the cheapest of those I had tasted.
Having learned some new things about the New Mexico terroir,
I headed back on the road to Santa Fe, calculating that I hadn’t even had a
glass equivalent of wine so would be fine to drive.
My long-standing image of Santa Fe is consistent with the aforementioned artist colony I described above: a
sun-drenched, red dirt expanse with open-air adobe homes where Navajo blankets
hang on the window sills and residents sit in their front yards selling goods in shallow, straw baskets. I don’t know where this image came from, but this is not actually what Santa Fe looks or feels like.
The real Santa Fe had a lot of old Spanish mission style architecture, a few unmemorable buildings and multi-story parking lots, and was empty and overcast, at least that day. I quickly questioned what I was doing in Santa Fe, realizing I had no intentions to to buy pottery, art
or anything made out of turquoise. I wanted a Navajo rug, but they were upwards
of $1,000 and shipping it home would have been its own additional costs.
It seemed like the only people in Santa Fe under 40 were the young people who worked at the stores, such as Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House. There seemed to be a particular presence of middle aged white men walking
around in suits (which I later guessed had to do with town
courthouse being nearby) and a handful of tourists.
Works, I grabbed a couple of books, ordered a pour over of a Mexican blend for
less than $4 and I sat down on a leather couch near the
fireplace and began to read, periodically nodding off.
I finally gave up on the two
more ambitious books I had picked up and grabbed a book called Everybody Rise about a startup and New
York City socialites. I stayed awake for the 15 or so pages and decided
to purchase the book so I could have something to read for the flight.
The Georgia O’Keefe Museum
From Collected Works, I walked about five minutes to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, like so many buildings in this region a boxy, mud brown, made I think of stucco.
The museum gave nice overview of O’Keefe’s life story, from Wisconsin to New York City to New Mexico (and around the globe). I learned from a video that O’Keefe felt people misunderstood her as a highly sexual woman
after the release of naked artistic photographs taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Around this time, she began going to New Mexico
regularly, carving out her own path in the West. Stieglitz died in the mid-1940s, and as O’Keefe got older, she spent more and more time in New Mexico each year, until finally she moved there, starting in one house, and later moving to another and painting the strikingly colored New Mexico scenery for which we now know her.
As I looked at photos of O’Keefe and studied her paintings and sculptures, I marveled at how she managed to feel so at home in
the barren expanse of New Mexico that I had driven through that day. All day I had felt a tinge of loneliness, made more palpable by the barren expanse, the space, and the lack of people. Yet O’Keefe took this place right away.
O’Keefe and I were both from the Midwest, which made her affinity for New Mexico even more interesting. Certainly she and I are from different types of communities (hers rural, mine urban and then suburban). I realized in New Mexico how
accustomed I am to trees that block my view of the great beyond, and in turn how unsettling
emptiness is. I am not the first one to say New Mexico feels like another
planet. With its brown boxy homes that seem like they were built as deliberate
camouflage to the geodesic domes, to the atomic bomb, to UFO sightings, New Mexico feels not of this Earth, and yet at the same time utterly
Getting there advice
The plane travel was cheap. I took a Jet Blue flight from JFK to Albuquerque for around $215. But what I saved in money, I made up for in sleep loss, since I had to take a redeye that left Albuquerque at 11:59 pm on Monday. My car rental seemed cheap, at $60, but ended up being over $200 once insurance fees were factored in. A piece of advice: ask the car rental place how much your rental will be with fees, and get a credit card that provides this insurance so you don’t have to buy it with your rental. Make sure you know whether that credit card provides that insurance. I may have indeed had such a credit card, but I had forgotten to check.
I remember reading somewhere that the reason why adults like to travel is because it is one of the few actions we can take that brings with it a feeling of novelty. As children, many things are new and exciting, but as we grow up, often we become jaded to the very things that once filled us with anticipation.
A perfect example for me is the restaurant and game room Chuck-E-Cheese. When I was a kid, Chuck-E-Cheese was somewhere I pretty much always wanted to go. It had games, prizes, and pizza, and those were three of the most fun things to me. But as I got older, I began to see Chuck-E-Cheese as dreary. It reminded me of strip malls and cheap prizes. The novelty eventually wore off.
Travel, however, continues to be a novelty. As a kid, I looked forward to vacations from the moment I found out one was coming. As an adult, I don’t quite hit this level – there is too much planning that I have to do – but when I’m on vacation, I feel a rush that comes from seeing a place for the first time, from being free from usual obligations, and from being in a situation where everything is a bit unexpected. Unlike being a kid, there are few other opportunities for me as an adult to feel like this.
The opposite happens in the places we live. Even if that place is interesting like New York City is, I still have a routine here, and that becomes run-of-the-mill. Plus, the inconveniences stand out much more at home than when we’re traveling – the traffic, the train delays, the people on the street who don’t walk on the right side, the weather.
So it is always welcome when I happen to see a different side of New York City than the one I experience every day. Last weekend, I was coming off of a bus from Washington, D.C., near Soho. I headed east down Grand Street, toward the Canal Street station.
As I walked down the street, I saw a large, ground-floor, corner window with two vases with flowers along the sill and what looked like a framed academic degree hanging on an otherwise white, bare-wall.
I was so struck by the scene that I took out my iPhone and snapped a photo. When I looked at the photo, I noticed the reflection of a building across the street and two one-way street signs, pointing in different directions.
It was one of my favorite photos I have taken, and I didn’t have to go very far to get it.
On my second full day in Guatemala, my friends and I took a motorized boat ride arranged by our hostel to a family-owned spot across Lake Peten Itza with a diving board, platform, and a rope swing. There was also a covered patio with chairs, tables, and hammocks to relax and order from their small and very inexpensive menu which included nachos, a lunch of the day, Cuba libres (rum and coke) and the local lagers, Gallo and Brahva. The place is called Jorge’s Rope Swing, because the family patriarch is named Jorge. He and his family live in a modest open air home and all work at Jorge’s Rope Swing. Entrance is 10 Quetzales (less than $2) and the boat ride is around $10 per person. Beers are around $1. There are also very cheap and very modest overnight accommodations.
Pulling up to Jorge’s Rope Swing
The wooden diving board, platform and rope swing
My first jump into the water was from the platform, the least scary of the three options. Then I tried the rope swing, after my friend Keith did it and told me what I needed to do – swing out far enough and let go. There were knots on the rope that made it fairly easy to hold on, so that was a relief.
I then tried the diving board, which was higher than the platform. As I walked out, I was gripped by fear and inched my way back, almost shaking. I remembered when I was a kid and we had visited to my dad’s alma mater, Penn State. We went to their Olympic-sized pool with several platforms, all of which I eagerly jumped off of. Where was that fearlessness now?
The lovely patio area
I jumped off the platform and the rope swing again several times, all the while thinking about how I wanted to get up the guts to jump off the diving board before the end of the day, especially because most of the other people there had done it and survived. Finally, I asked an American woman who was in her twenties how she had talked herself into jump of the diving board. “I didn’t think about it,” she said. I told her I wanted to do it by the end of the day but was scared. “Do it now,” she said. “Don’t think about it.” She led me over to the board, and then urged me to get on. I walked quickly to the edge of the board and jumped off. I got a little water up my nose, but nothing terrible. Most of all, I felt relief, as I no longer had to torment myself for being afraid of jumping off the board.
Keith jumping from the rope into the water
My friend Keith, meanwhile, with several other tourists, had gotten the guts to jump from a higher perch on the rope swing, something I never convinced myself to do. Throughout the day, people came through, a group of German tourists, several Australians, including two friends, a couple, and a family, the American who convinced me to jump and an Italian female friend she had met while traveling. An energetic Canadian couple came and quickly did all there was to do. The boyfriend ran off the diving board and did a big jump holding his Go Pro. But as he jumped in, his Go Pro flew off. He came up, realizing he had lost his Go Pro. None of us could see it floating. When we asked Jorge’s family if there was anyway to use a scuba mask to get it, they gave us a mask but told us that there were probably several cameras on the floor of the lake. The Canadian guy looked around, but it was hopeless. The floor of the lake was too deep.
Feeling bad for him, we tried not to dwell on it and eventually made plans to meet up back at our hostel to use the hostel’s sauna. We left Jorge’s some time after 6 p.m. after enjoying a beautiful sunset.
Keith trying to rub in the vacation to Instagram followers
I recently went to Belize & Guatemala with a couple friends. Our last stop was Caye Caulker (see photos & scroll down for recommendations). The travelers we met in Guatemala who had come from that direction had almost universally stopped at the small island off the coast of mainland Belize. I had never heard of it myself until my friends invited me on this trip. Caye Caulker is known as a Caribbean island for the budget traveler, like the high number of backpackers that pass through on their way between Mexico and Guatemala (rentals go for as low as around $75-80 a night, and hostels are dirt cheap). It also might as well be known as the Caribbean island for travelers who want to interact with locals rather than being roped off in a resort. Simply the fact that there are hostels there is a nice option for those of us who don’t want drop a ton of money on accommodations and actually like the atmosphere of hostels (esp. if solo rooms are available!).
The island has two main streets and several side streets with restaurants, bars, snorkeling outfits, and guests houses. This area is about a mile long (the whole island is about five miles long). There are no chain hotels or restaurants - not a Ramada or Best Western or McDonald’s. The islanders - mostly native Belizeans but some expats and people who moved there from neighboring countries like Nicaragua and Mexico - are friendly.
The people we met who had been to Caye Caulker – mostly Europeans, North Americans, and Australians – had almost uniformly good things to say about it. It was low key and free of cars – the only motorized vehicles allowed are golf carts – and near some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving. But mostly it was just a nice place to relax and “go slow” as the island’s motto is. The friends I was traveling with had visited Little Corn Island in Nicaragua one year ago and wanted a similar experience on a small, relaxed island.
To get to Caye Caulker from Flores, Guatemala, we took a direct shuttle to Belize City, a rundown seaside city with small hints of charm that reminded me a bit of New Orleans. (Tourists usually try to avoid spending any time in (probably for good reason, as it seems pretty rundown)). Our shuttle ride included the price of a ticket on the water taxi to Caye Caulker and San Pedro Isalnd, which took 45 minutes. As we waited for the ferry, it started to rain, and I worried we were going to encounter bad weather. All of the passengers crowded into the covered part of the boat. A man with a grey mustache in a vacation shirt who looked like he belonged squarely in Jimmy Buffet’s target audience was talking loudly to a young couple about how he had been to Caye Caulker years ago, when it was quiet and harder to get to. As we rode on, the rain let up, the sky cleared, and when we docked and got out of the boat, the sun was beating down on us and making me sweat. It didn’t rain a drop the whole time we were there.
Hammocks off the main road
I could see what people had meant about the island. There weren’t paved roads. People lazed around on hammocks that hung from trees or sprawled out on the little strip of sand that constituted the beach, which had eroded over the years. Vacationers biked past us on clunky commuter bikes. We walked from the water front west to the main road which had cafés, restaurants and grocery stores, which were all Chinese.
During my three nights and three days at Caye Caulker, we struck a great balance between relaxing and taking advantage of the activities that the island afforded us. We followed the advice of a Canadian couple we met in Guatemala and got pinā coladas at Rainbow Grill. We came in second at trivia night at Barrier Reef Sports Bar, teaming up with an Irish couple who had quit their jobs and were traveling the world, and two British guys who worked together at Nike.
We went kayaking along the calmer, west side of the island. We sat and swam at the Split, which is literally a split in the middle of the island between its north and south, caused by Hurricane Hattie in the 1960s. I swam across to the other side, where the tree roots went deep into the water. The current was strong and boats frequently sailed through, so I swam back before I could get too tired. We went snorkeling and saw (small, friendly) sharks, sting rays, all sorts of colorful rainbow fish, and amazingly shaped reef. We spent some time at our hotel’s small but refreshing pool, enjoying bottles of the local beers, Belikin and Lighthouse.
We wandered the few streets of the island, past restaurants serving the catch of the day, jerk chicken, and cocktails like rum punch and panty rippers. We ate cinnamon rolls and donuts from a local bakery and fry jacks with eggs, cheese, beans, and Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and washed it down with fresh fruit blended juice. My digestive system still hasn’t quite recovered from the trip, but I have no regrets.
Sunset on the island's west side
When I was beginning my journey back home on the Belize City bound water taxi, I looked back at Caye Caulker one last time, taking in the colorful wood clapboard, buildings, weathered docks, and clear blue water. I saw a man pulling in in a small motor boat, waving, a memory that now seems like a mirage.
To think about how a place like Caye Caulker, with its bright sun and calm warm waters, exists at the same time as the New York City I came back to, with its remote winter light and a fresh coat of snow, is one of those strange and cool things about traveling far from home.
Sometime during my first year after college, while living and working in Washington D.C., I began feeling the crushing regularity of my life bearing down on me, and began to anxiously search for alternatives and escapes. The excitement of the initial few months of life after college had worn off, and I felt myself staring down the barrel of the rest of the future: waking up early, taking the Metro to work, cursing to myself when the Metro was crowded, sitting in front of a computer for eight hours, and having at most a happy hour to look forward to at day’s end.
It hadn’t always been this way. When I had decided to move to D.C. after college to work as a paralegal in the federal government, it had seemed like a good opportunity. I had chosen this over another path I was seriously considering: teaching English in Montpelier, France, for one year through a program run by the French embassy. I had decided against it because I worried that I would fall behind my peers, that my life would be lonely overseas, that it wouldn’t set me up for a viable career path or one I was particularly interested in, and that French wasn’t practical the way that Spanish, Mandarin or Farsi was. Plus I had studied abroad for a semester in France already. I reassured myself that I could still take French classes in D.C. during my free time.
During that post-college malaise I began feeling, I thought back to how much I had enjoyed French while studying abroad. I had enrolled in Alliance Française classes in D.C., though I was quickly losing motivation. I began to think that in order to stay motivated, I needed to feel like I would have the opportunity to put my French to actual use.
So one day, I did a Google search for “language immersion program France” and found several programs. One place in particular stuck with me. All I can remember is a photo of a window looking out onto a blue sea, advertising a program in the Côte d’Azur. But, as I thought about it a bit more, the immersion program seemed unfeasible. It lasted at least two weeks, which seemed like a long time to take off of work. And did I really want to use a vacation for something kind of like school? Plus, it wasn’t particularly cheap.
I’ve had a bad habit in my life of letting go too quickly of ideas that seemed to carry with them too much uncertainty or risk. In this case, I began to accept that French was going to become one of those skills, like doing handstands, that would fade because there was no good reason to keep it up.
But sometime last year, I began revisiting the idea of a language immersion program. I wanted to take a trip where I felt a connection to the place I was visiting, where, ideally I could speak the language. French was my best bet, and of course, I had many great memories of my time there in college.
I did another Google sweep of all of the available programs. I came across programs in Tours, Paris, and the Côte d’Azur—probably the same program I had seen years ago. But another program stood out to me. It was located in Provence in a converted monastery. I pictured a Spartan atmosphere of pure learning.
When I browsed around the website, I saw photos of rolling lavender fields; an elegant estate with an orange tiled roof, a cloister courtyard and fountain; and smiling people sitting around a long dinner table. The program looked to be as much about partaking in the joys of French country life as it was about improving in the language. I read more. Three French meals per day were served, and each afternoon, you could partake in a different activity, such as hiking, sailing, wine tasting, or visiting the L’Occitaine factory. And you could stay as little as one week, which was a nice option given the price and the fact that I wanted to spend some time traveling around the country by myself as well. In early January, I sent an email to Crea Langues, realizing as I tried feebly to write it in French before giving up, that I had forgotten a lot.
Seven months later, I was sitting in a Starbucks at the Marseille-Provence Airport, drinking a cold brew – really espresso over ice – reading over the Crea Langues program, minutes away from meet up with others in the program. I had traveled around in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Cassis, and Marseille over the past week, which had helped me get up to a level of basic comprehension and an ability to respond in short sentences, but I still felt very slow when I spoke.
I finished my iced coffee, rose, began walking over to the ‘Point Rencontre’ or meeting point a few minutes before our meeting time. I saw a man in a denim shirt holding a sign that said Crea Langues and two blonde women. One came up to me and introduced herself in highly proficient French. They asked where I was from and said they had guessed I might be German based on my name. The woman who had introduced herself in French was from the Netherlands, the other woman, who was about as confident in her French as me, was from Sweden.
A Canadian couple arrived minutes later who seemed around my level. We followed the driver to the parking lot, got in a large van and drove to the Aix-en-Provence TGV station to pick up an older woman from the U.S. who had come from Paris and a guy around my age who lived in Belgium and came originally from Ireland. I began to feel like I was at the outset of an Agatha Christie novel, with people from all nationalities being brought together and ferried away to a large estate.
We drove east, toward the region of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, which is the less written about part of Provence. I could feel the altitude increase and roads became increasingly winding. The driver had the windows up and no air-conditioning on, and I started to feel like I was on an insulated roller coaster that had no end.
By the time we got to the monastery, I was carsick and thus relieved to be on firm land. We were greeted by Dhruv, who owned the monastery and ran Crea Langues with his wife Anne-Marie. He led us through the entrance and to the cloister that I’d seen on the internet and began assigning people to bedrooms off of it. We continued to follow him down a hall as he gestured in the direction of rooms and called out names. My room was at the end of a dark hall, but when I walked in, it was filled with light. Its two windows looked out toward a garden on one side and a farm on the other, and I felt, as I breathed in the fresh, quickly cooling air, that I had made the right choice by coming here.
When I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport at 2 a.m. on Saturday, December 27, 2014, the first thing I noticed was the airport’s plainness compared to my layover in Hong Kong’s, which felt like a futuristic high-end shopping mall. But the airport didn’t matter. When I made my way outside, I feeling the initial relief of stepping into tropical air in the middle of winter, being far away from home and work and winter’s isolation.
Hong Kong’s somewhat weird, high-end airport
Given my excitement to be on vacation, I didn’t even really mind too much that I still had a way to go before I was done traveling. I still had to take a bus to meet my cousin and his wife in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, where they were doing Peace Corps, so for now I was just passing through Ho Chi Minh City. My hope was that I’d be able to catch a bus as soon as I got into the city, so I hadn’t gotten a hotel room.
My plan was to go to a street called Pham Ngu Lao, where, according to the web, buses left from, and find out where bus tickets were sold.
I took a cab from the airport to Ho Chi Minh City. The city was quiet. Most places looked closed. I assumed we were getting to the central part of the city once we began to drive past places that seemed to cater to tourists. Westerners were emptying out of a luxurious looking, light yellow, colonial building with a courtyard.
Nonetheless, the city felt calm. It even reminded me a of a Southern city, with wide streets, sprawl even in the downtown, humidity, and nightlife that ended early. The driver dropped me off at Pham Ngu Lao by a pho place, and I went in.
I said “xin chao” to the staff, embarrassed that it was the only Vietnamese phrase I knew. But they were friendly and pointed me to a table. The only other people in the restaurant were a couple Australian tourists.
I chose the pho based on which seemed to have the most diverse combinations of beef parts. It wasn’t even 3 a.m. I stretched out and realized unlike when I was home, I could take my precious time.
First pho in VIetnam
A Christmas tree made of white tinsel in the front of the restaurant reminded me I had missed Christmas Day, or rather spent it flying tens of thousands of feet over the West until it became the East, above the Laptev Sea and near Siberia, according to the flight progress on the seatback screen in front of me. I thought about how flight distorts our sense of distance because when we travel by air, because we can’t constantly see the distance we are traversing. On a road trip, you get the sense of how far you have traveled because you can continuously see the change in landscape, architecture, climate, and people over the course of your journey. With air travel, you walk through a tube on one side of the world, watch some movies, eat, read, attempt a crossword puzzle, sleep, and exit from another tube, where you find yourself on the other side of the world.
After leaving the restaurant, I was back on Pham Ngu Lao. A man approached me and asked in English if I needed a ride anywhere. No thanks, I said. He suggested I follow him, I hesitated a bit, but didn’t feel in any grave danger and had nowhere else to go. He led me a couple of blocks down Pham Ngu Lao to a convenience store that looked like a Seven Eleven.
Pham Ngu Lao
He motioned me in, and said something in Vietnamese to a small, thin man wearing a security guard uniform. They offered me a stool near the front and said I should wait inside because it was safer in there. I sat down at a stool at the front of the store. The man who had led me to the store was named Hei, and he drove a moto for hire. He scrolled through the contacts in his flip phone, mentioning all of the people he had met from abroad, and showing me the name of a German he had become friends with.
After he went back outside, I bought a snack and drink from the convenience store, figuring it was the least I could do, and settled in to read my guidebook. I looked up intermittently at the guard, impressed that he managed to stay awake and alert when almost no one was coming in.
Around 5 a.m. I went outside and told Hei I was going to walk around a bit. He led me to a street food spot with some plastic tables and chairs. A man drove up in a moto with two giant bags, each full of banh mi sandwich rolls that he dropped off at the restaurant.
Man drops off baguettes
A young guy was sitting near me eating pho. I felt like I should try to talk to him, but didn’t. I ate and kept my eyes on the street, which was fairly busy and becoming busier. Then the guy turned around and started talking. He asked where I was from. He introduced himself as Daniel, said he lived in Germany. His mom was Japanese and his dad was German. He had been traveling for a while around Asia, staying in hostels. He said he was studying business at college and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He told me about visiting Angkor Wat and North Vietnam.
Around us the street life was picking up. Older Vietnamese couples in sneakers and exercise clothing walked toward the park across from Pham Ngu Lao. It was around 6, remarkably early for this many people to be out and active. But I realized the heat (hitting the 90s even in late December) and humidity probably drove people to wake up as the sun was rising, even–or especially–on a Saturday.
After more talking about hostels and traveling alone, I said goodbye and good luck to Daniel. Hei was still around and guided me to the small storefront of a bus company operator. He led me inside. A woman was sitting up in a bed in the back. The business didn’t seem like it was open, technically, yet because of Hei, they let me buy my $15 ticket for a seven hour bus ride.
I followed a man from the company outside and was told to wait by the bus. It was only nearly 7, but the the park was as active as if it were late morning, with people playing badminton, working out on exercise equipment, walking, and doing tai chi.
7 a.m. badminton
When the bus left, as we pulled out and drove down Pham Ngu Lao, a sea of motos drove alongside us. Many of the drivers wore swine flu style face masks, although it occurred to me they were probably to protect against the pollution, not the flu. At one stop, I noticed a woman with a Burberry patterned mask.
Burberry face mask
We drove out farther and farther from the center of Saigon, through sprawl, past businesses with names like Viet Hung Joint Stock Company.
About three weeks later, on the last night of my trip, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City, having spent 10 days in Cambodia and ten more traveling from Hanoi to Hoi An and finally back to Ho Chi Minh City, where I would depart for home. I was staying just off of Bui Vien, which is one street away from Pham Ngu Lao, and is known as the backpackers’ road for its cluster of hostels, hotels, restaurants and bars that serve tourists, many from Western countries.
My last night was just as sleep-deprived as the first. My flight was leaving at 5:55 am, so I spent the late hours of the night before packing and then walked around the district. And then I had an idea: why not go over to Pham Ngu Lao, and see if Hei was still there? I walked down busy Bui VIen, clutching my purse as I weaved through throngs of tourists, some red-faced from the heat and drinking, and turned right. I walked past the convenience store, spying the guard inside.
Me and Hei during my last night in Vietnam
And Hei was standing nearby, in his perch. He recognized me almost right away. I told him I had had a great trip in Vietnam, thanked him for helping me the first night, and then asked if he wanted to take a photo. He took my phone and held it out for some selfies, and then we even got someone else to take another photo.
I headed back to my hotel room, sad that my time in Southeast Asia was evaporating before me but heartened at how I had found community nine thousand miles from home – the distance of just four movies, an attempted crossword puzzle a few hours of sleep, and a couple mediocre airplane meals.
Enough people have asked me what it is like traveling alone that I decided to write about it here. I’ll write in successive posts about the logistics, but first I just want to write about my philosophy behind traveling alone, and what got me to do it–how it was really a gradual building to fully independent travel.
The primary takeaway is this:
If the only thing that is preventing you from taking a trip you otherwise really want to take is that you don’t have anyone to go with, I highly recommend you travel alone. As a general rule, I’ve learned that it’s best not to spend life waiting for someone to give you permission to do something you want to do in your heart. To get even more to the point: we are all going to die one day. What judgmental people thought of us matters even less when we’re dead than when we’re alive.
Now for my personal story which allowed me to get here. I have always been a pretty independent person, for better and for worse. I’ve done many things alone out of both desire and necessity. I didn’t have many friends when I was younger, and thus I became accustomed to, if not always comfortable, being alone. Plus my dad would often tell my brother, sister, and I to take the public bus and not rely on him or my mom for rides everywhere, as was common in the suburb where I grew up.
For these reasons, traveling alone came fairly easy to me. Additionally, I liked the adventure and excitement of travel, of leaving behind the mundanity of everyday life for something far less predictable.
My first experience traveling alone was at age 11, when my parents dropped me off at O’hare airport for a flight to Baltimore International Airport, where I met my grandparents and stayed with them for a week at there home in the Maryland suburbs over my spring break. On the flight over, I took to being able to freely make choices, such as what beverage to drink (most likely, I chose soda) and what to do during the flight.
When I was 17, I went with my German class on a three-week summer trip to Berlin and around the country of Germany (and into Austria). For the first two weeks, each of us lived with a German family in East Berlin. Everything was smaller: the dwelling, which was an apartment, the car my family drove, and the refrigerator, and I loved it. It was more compact, economical, and made less space for the things and stuff that we’re overrun with here in the U.S. (and increasingly abroad, I’m sure, as the consumer economy becomes the model for economic growth).
At the end of high school, I again made a solo trip to meet my grandparents. This time, I planned to meet them in the Swiss Alps from Italy, where I had been on a trip with my European History class. The trip between these bordering and vastly different countries began early, as I set off with my European history teacher, Mr. Kucharski, from the Amalfi Coast, where our group had spent our final days, to Rome, where I needed to catch an 8 a.m. train to the region of Lake Thun. (The rest of the group would follow later on a coach bus, but Mr. Kucharski had kindly offered to drive me because no one thought it was a good idea for me to take a train by myself from the Amalfi Coast through Naples to Rome).
Unfortunately, we arrived at the Rome train station just before 8 a.m., and I ran to find my track right as my train was leaving. Fortunately, the next train left only one hour later, at nine, so missing the train did not seem like a grave thing. I boarded the train, finding a seat in a six-person compartment of a drab car that I vaguely remember looked like it was from the 1960s – with shades of worn down avocado green and orange-yellow.
The train left late, and progressively became more and more delayed, often coming to a standstill for an interminable amount of time. These were the days when cell phones were just beginning to come on the scene, and I wouldn’t have one for a couple of years, so there was no way to call my grandparents’ friends, who were planning to pick me up, to let them know I’d be late, or my family back home, who would inevitably speak with my grandparents’ friends when I didn’t show up at the agreed time. I helplessly watched a conductor pass by, wanting to ask what was going on, but unable to speak the language and afraid I’d be met with annoyance or indifference for expecting a clear explanation of a reason for a delay in my native language (In fairness, this is a lot to expect nowadays of the New York City subway). I began to feel an anxious pit on my stomach as I looked around hopelessly at the drabness around me, unable to concentrate enough to pass the time reading.
I was lucky though. The woman sitting next to me was Italian and traveling home to Milan. She was able to learn from a conductor that the train was delayed because it had essentially been taken out of service. The reason we were stopping for such long periods was to let other trains that were still in-service and still adhering to a schedule pass us. Once my seat mate figured this out, she told me it was best if we both got off at the next stop and transferred to whatever Milan-bound train was behind us. We did that and sure enough, we passed our condemned former train and made it to Milan in time for me to catch the last train to Switzerland around 7 p.m. I made it to Milan, caught the train, and as I passed into Switzerland, the sense of dread washed away, and I was left with the thrill I got from experiencing something that contrasted to my normally predictable life in the Chicago suburbs.
My next serious traveling alone experience was when I studied abroad in Paris in the fall semester of my junior year of college. On the day I arrived, a van picked me and a married couple up from Charles de Gaulle on August 30 or 31. As we drove through the city I would call home for the next few months, through quiet boulevards in the north of the city, along what I’d later learn was the Champs Elysées, and into the congested Left Bank, where small cars skillfully maneuvered through narrow streets, I felt mild nervousness and homesickness but mostly curiosity. After we had dropped the couple off, the driver told me he could give me tours of Paris and gave me his number, which I never called. I arrived at the apartment of my host family, had lunch with my host mom and her older son, who I’d never see again, and took a nap, still on Chicago time.
At the Jardin Luxembourg in 2004
My homesickness never really got the best of me the way it had when I went away to summer camp as a kid. The curiosity of Paris, of learning a foreign language, of taking public transportation around that city, overtook homesickness.
From my Paris study abroad scrapbook: one of the French students invited a group of us down to the French Riviera, where I realized the joy of falling asleep on a beach, September 2004
While studying abroad, I traveled by myself to Brussels and for part of a trip to Austria and Germany, and to London. I felt aimless and a bit lonely—it gave me a lot of time to think, certainly. I wouldn’t travel alone again for years.
Salzburg, Austria, fall 2004
My friend Mary and I at the oldest restaurant in Salzburg, fall 2004
Ten years later, I was feeling a bit aimless, but for different reasons. I was one year out of a relationship, starting to realize that I might be single for the foreseeable future. In that most recent relationship, I had mostly though of my boyfriend as the one who was good at planning trips, since he was more well-travelled than me and spent more time researching potential destinations. I loved traveling in Europe but did not know too much about other continents, and didn’t know where to begin.
However, at some point, I had gotten it in my head that I wanted to go to Vietnam—for a combination of reasons. There was the connection to the U.S., which I felt I was only beginning to understand, and also the connection to France. I liked the food, and I read online that it was one of the safest places for women to travel solo.
On a guided bike ride in Hoi An, Vietnam, 2015
As luck would have it, my cousin and his wife entered the Peace Corps in the summer of 2014 in neighboring Cambodia, and so that fall I booked a roundtrip ticket from Newark Airport to Ho Chi Minh City, with a layover both ways in Hong Kong and set off on my first trip to Southeast Asia. I traveled alone for the Vietnam portion of the trip, which was as much a solo travel learning experience for me as any that had come prior. Once I arrived in Hanoi from Siem Reap, I had the sobering thought that it was up to me now, I could no longer rely on my cousins, who had planned all of our accommodation as we travelled around Cambodia and knew all of the cities we stayed in from previous visits. I decided quickly that I should go on tours, given how inexpensive and well-organized they were. Fortunately, it was easy to sign up last minute for the trip to Halong Bay, the bike tour and cooking class in Hoi An, the tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon, and the boat ride through the Mekong Delta. I discarded my conventional wisdom about tours, which is that they are for older tourists or those who aren’t really comfortable with the culture. And I learned that when traveling, it is best to discard conventional wisdom when it leads to you trying to be tougher than you are. Yes, it would be great if I knew Vietnamese and could get around well enough to navigate sights on my own, but I had to be realistic.
On the same tour in Hoi An. Learning (in vain) how to paddle this boat after visiting the crafts people who built it
I have continued to practice a practical-minded and adaptable approach to traveling alone. A little over a year after this trip, I went to Hawaii’s Big Island to visit a friend and spent about half the time by myself on Oahu. When I arrived in Waikiki Beach the first night, not liking my hostel and being a little overwhelmed by the outdoor shopping mall vibe of Waikiki, I canceled the next night in that hostel and headed to the North Shore one day earlier than planned. There, I stayed in the only hostel in that area. I was put in a modest house with four bedrooms, three of which were occupied by couples, from Australia, Chile, and the West Coast. In the two evenings I was there, we would gather on the porch, share beers and food, and talk about our respective countries, what we did for a living, and where we’d traveled in Hawaii and beyond. Even though I was the only single person there, everyone was very friendly and easy to talk to, and it left in me a great impression of the North Shore, which is known for a surfer population and vibe. I felt a little weird being the only single person, but I realized that there was no point in dwelling on it.
At Waimea Valley, North Shore, Hawaii, with the woman who showed me how to make this necklace
If even after my words of encouragement, you still need to feel at some level that you are not the only one traveling alone, there are no shortage of blogs, articles, and even website sections giving advice and encouragement to women who are traveling alone, from other women who have done it. Some of these pieces of writing have the depth of a puddle (”Yes I’m pretty, and I’m traveling alone”) or are almost entirely written in listicle. But even the lighter fare is well-intentioned and has bits of wisdom in it.
I’d definitely recommend checking out this Wanderlust and Lipstick, advice from Kristin on the Nomadic Matt travel site, and Nomadic Chick. This site also looks good. Other people are doing it, and that number will only continue to increase as it becomes more normal in our society to be single for periods of one’s life, to never marry, etc. Why not be at the forefront of this trend rather than the person who signs on when everyone is assuredly doing it? Especially if you are finding yourself looking at other people’s Facebook and Instagram photos, envying their trips to Bogota, Barcelona, or Bangkok, and continuing to go to work, go to the gym, come home, make dinner (if you’re lucky) and fall asleep while trying to make it through an episode of “Breaking Bad.”
There is something sad about someone depriving herself (or himself) of an experience out of a fear of how it will look to others or of safety, for that matter. I’d wager that anyone who drives to work in the U.S. is at just as much risk of getting injured or killed as a solo traveler.
So as you can see, the first thing to do to help travel alone is shift your perspective. If you have already done that—or never had these hang-ups to begin with—come back soon as I’ll address logistical questions to solo trip planning.
With my expectations both high and weird, I began planning my first Pacific Coast Highway trip in 2010. The plan was to start in Seattle, end up in San Francisco, and stop along the way along the coast and in places like the Willamette Valley and the California Redwood Forest.
I had roped my brother and sister into coming along because I thought it would be cool to do a siblings’ road trip, like those we had done as a whole family when we were growing up. Our parents planned trips out West to Colorado and Wyoming, East to Quebec and New York and Northeast, to Michigan and Nova Scotia. One of our favorite trips was to Colorado. We stayed at a place known as “the YMCA of the Rockies,” and enjoyed five days of hiking, roller skating at the camp’s roller rink, go-carting down a nearby Alpine slide, and eating at the camp dining hall or grill.
With a mind for reliving those glory days, I set out to plan a vacation that I hoped would be just as fun as those family vacations. I also tried to make the trip affordable. We had places to stay in the three cities we were hitting, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and a one-night stay planned for a yurt in one of Oregon’s state parks. The other nights we would play by ear and stay at a motel along our route down the coast.
In Seattle, realizing we are going to have to navigate down the Pacific Coast
The day we arrived, we met at my brother’s friend’s apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. The friend was out of town and kindly let us stay in her apartment. We spent a full day in Seattle with my brother’s friend from college. We walked around downtown, including Pike’s Place Market and to the Space Needle area, where we came upon a seemingly abandoned but operating amusement park. There was a small water ride where you rode down a short slope in a car. My brother took off his shirt and headed for the ride. He and my sister went on some other rides while I mostly looked on. We then took a bus out to the University of Washington neighborhood. We went to a microbrewery, amused ourselves watching my brother try beer (at the time, he wasn’t much of a beer fan), and ate at one of the best and spiciest Thai restaurants I have been to. After that, we decided to go to a tanning salon, and I was the only one who didn’t partake.
My brother on the water ride
That evening, we went out to visit a bunch of my sister’s high school friends who lived in Ballard. At this time, I was very curious what life was like for people who didn’t live in big, dense, urban places like New York. I had made the choice to stay in NYC for the foreseeable future, and it felt like the right choice, but all the same, I was intrigued by the idea that life could be simpler, more spacious, more outdoor-filled, cheaper, and perhaps more communal and less individualistic. My sister’s friends were a case in point. Several of them lived in a craftsman home in Ballard with a decent-sized kitchen, a big common area with a poster of Richard Nixon bowling, and a front porch and backyard.
My brother doing a beer flight
The next day, we set out on our road trip. I was beginning to make a few observations. One is that my siblings and I aren’t that good at enjoying nature together. We stopped at Mount Rainier on our way to Portland to go hiking. For a good chunk of this hike, we were arguing about whether my brother should pee there. I think my sister was for him not peeing, while he was for peeing. My sister seemed to be trying to appreciate the nature, while my brother was not very stimulated by it. I began to wonder what I had been thinking when I had had the idea to go out into nature with him.
Another thing we were learning was that we were not used to being on vacation. My brother at the time was an aspiring comedian, and he felt like he should be working on material. I was had been working for a year at a job I didn’t like, and I was trying not to think about that. My sister was finishing up a year where she had to contend with one of the worst job markets in American history. Our parents raised us to have a strong work ethic, so I don’t think we were particularly used to going on vacation to relax. Going on vacation is something I need to give myself permission to do, and I have gotten a whole lot better at it than I was back in 2010. Although my siblings and I all lived in the same city at the time, and still do, being on vacation together led to a different dynamic than what was typical.
Wondering what we were thinking when we decided to travel together
My sister on the Mount Rainier hike
It also felt at times like we were reverting back to our childhood dynamic with each other. I was laughing at all of my brother’s jokes, even the dumb ones, and my sister was finding him to be too hammy and said I was enabling him. We had really only just begun what would be a vacation of both enjoying each other’s company, tolerating each other, and getting upset. The fact that we can so quickly bounce between these three states says something beautiful about siblings.
Passing through Red State America
After a short drive from Seattle, we arrived in Vancouver, Washington, a suburb of Portland where my aunt and uncle live. One thing I didn’t learn until this vacation was that Portland and Seattle are very close to each other (about a three hour drive), while San Francisco is a much longer drive. This was something you’d think I would have known going into the trip, but I hadn’t spent too much time researching the actual drive.
Where we went (my best approximation)
Thai Tom restaurant
Big Time Brewery & Alehouse
Fun Forest Amuseument Park at the Seattle Space Needle
Before I write about my Pacific Coast Highway travel experiences, I want to write about California the myth, the California I experienced before I ever set foot in the state. (I won’t go into Washington & Oregon, where I also visited, until my actual travel chronicles).
I experienced 23 winters in the Chicagoland area and didn’t visit California until age 24 and perhaps for this reason, the Golden State has felt like something of a myth formed by an accumulation of TV and movies.
In this way, it is similar to New York City, my current home. Like NYC, California is familiar to the majority of Americans not from living there, but from watching stories that are set there.
Before I moved to NYC some eight years ago, the city I knew from TV and films was, depending on the era, chic, (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rear Window), full of quirky misfits and drug users (Hair, Annie Hall, Panic in Needle Park) gritty (Taxi Driver, French Connection, Saturday Night Fever), or yuppy (“Friends,” “Seinfeld”), but across all of these periods, except maybe the 1990s, New York feels heavy, like a place where intense things happen all of the time.
California in contrast has always seemed light to me. It is somewhere people moved to offload all of the heaviness of the East Coast for a life that is easier, warmer, sunnier, and perhaps less intellectually stimulating, though what does that matter when you can surf every day? Some of my earliest exposure to California was through TV fluff like “Saved by the Bell” and “California Dreams”—a show with a theme songs that begins “Surf dudes with attitudes.”
Then there were movies, so many movies, set in California. So much of California in these films is of course L.A. And this usually meant two types of depictions: either the gritty L.A. of race riots and crime or the stratospherically wealthy L.A. of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It meant the Rodney King riots I saw from brief news clips as a kid. It meant the 1995 film Higher Learning, which is set at a large California college that is roiled by misogyny and rape, racism and white supremacy, identity politics, and violence. You could call Higher Learning important, or you could call it heavy-handed, and you would be right. It meant Troop Beverly Hills, an endearing movie that manages to have you not only rooting for the 1 percent, a girl scout troop from Beverly Hills, but viewing them as David up against the Goliath that is Big Girl Scout. It meant Clueless, a funny movie with enviable (for 1995) fashion and a portrayal of rich L.A. that you hope is caricature but fear is not.
And then of course there was that TV show about a nice pair of Minnesota twins who get schooled in America’s wealthiest zip code: “Beverly Hills 90210.” In “90210,” people go to high school outside, surf for fun and maybe even when they should be in school, and drink, do drugs and have sex when they’re 14. They live in huge houses with successful, distant parents or by themselves because their crooked businessman father is neglectful (Dylan McKay).
I always wanted to go to California, because as a kid I wanted to go everywhere. But it also seemed like a myth, like a place that was written by someone in a small New York City apartment and built on a sound lot.
The California that first called out to me as real was not L.A. but farther north, in the Bay Area, portrayed in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. In this film about a detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he is hired to follow, we are treated to the redwoods of Muir Woods and Spanish mission architecture at the Mission San Juan Bautista, where several of the film’s most climactic scenes takes place. In Vertigo, we see elegant San Francisco and seedy San Francisco–which iselegant too. We see it all from the vantage point of main character Scotty, played by Jimmy Stewart, as he drives up sloped streets, to his own modern, low-rise apartment building, through pastel Victorian architecture, as he enters from an alley into a department store with a breathtaking floral display, and to a gloomy motel.
After this California lodged in my mind, the state began to seem more appealing, more beautiful and varied. This was furthered when I saw Play Misty for Me, a 1971 thriller starring Clint Eastwood set in his hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The modern, timber and stone oceanside home where Eastwood’s protagonist lives put the Monterey Peninsula on my list of idyllic places. Despite that as the film goes on, Eastwood’s bachelor-driven isolation becomes a liability, to me it looked wonderfully peaceful.
Big Sur, heading to Monterey Peninsula
Another favorite film of this time, The Way We Were, with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford, showed California as the place where people go when they leave New York City to live an easier life.
I encountered yet another California in my mid-20s, this one a world of cults, psychedelic drugs, and ultimately, violence. I read the book Helter Skelter, an intricate chronicle of the Manson murders of 1969 by the man who prosecuted and put away the Manson Family, Vincent Bugliosi.
What frightened me nearly as much as the brutal killings of Sharon Tate and her friends was reading about young people who joined up with Manson and got swept up in his insanity. Many of these kids were simply lost. They came from homes where there was abuse or indifference and were drawn to a movement that eschewed the traditional family unit as hopelessly corrupt and embrace a collective where everyone loved each other. The Manson story was a California story. Most of his family members met him in the Haight Ashbury social scene of the late 1960s, where he was considered a cool guy and a musician. They then went with him to L.A. Manson had his family take over a ranch that had been used as a set for old Westerns. They did lots of drugs, had sex with each other at their leader’s behest, and absorbed Manson’s theories about the coming race war.
Although cults can happen anywhere, the setting of California seemed especially appropriate. The state seems conceived out of a utopic idea: if you keep going far enough West, you’ll arrive. You’ll find farmland or gold or wine or fame or fortune or people who finally get you. California is the place where people go to leave behind old traditions for something new and better. Yet, this belief that you can be saved by going somewhere seems dangerous. It reminds me not only of Manson, but of Scientology and Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, the seemingly harmonious and tolerant church that grew to become influential in San Francisco and met a horrible fate in the jungles of Guyana.
This California of cults, new religions, and alternate ways of living life is portrayed in Joan Didion’s skeptical Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of narrative non-fiction pieces set in 1960s California. In one, called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion quotes the father of a woman who ends up dead: “Lucille wanted to see the world, and I guess she found out.” The recurring theme of California seems to be that your new life there will be no better than the one you left behind and might even be worse.
A slightly different, and more hopeful vision of California is offered in the 2004 film Sideways. Here you can begin a second life and have a good outcome. The state’s beautiful Santa Barbara County is that place for the two lead female characters, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, who have settled into a life of wine pouring and connoisseurship, discussing the fine points of Pinot Noir and enjoying as opposed to enduring life, as the two male characters, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church are doing at the beginning of the movie.
Santa Barbara’s gorgeous wine country
My sense of California has long been as somewhere where you went both to escape and find yourself. It is a place where you could get rid of all of the tension built up during your daily commutes in sweaty subway stations during a humid East Coast Summer.
What turned me on to doing trips up and down the Pacific Coast Highway however was not a movie but seeing photos from a vacation that my aunt and uncle did along PCH. After I saw their photos, the idea of escaping the New York City humidity in the dead of summer stuck in my mind. This is the time in middle to late August when the charms of summer are being overshadowed by miserable subway stations and a Prospect Park that has become a wasteland of people’s post-barbecue garbage.
Stay tuned to find out what I saw in my Highway 1 series.
When I was walking home from dinner on the second night in Split, Croatia, with my two friends, the conversation turned to water. As excited as I had been to get out of America and travel around somewhere quieter, slower paced and more tradition-bound than our country, I was beginning to have my moments of jingoistic pride in some of the more innovative things we do back home. That night for instance, I started in about the water and how I wish that, like America, nations in Europe provided you with tap water at dinner without you having to ask and sometimes pay for it. There are a lot of problems with America, I thought, but one thing we do right is having unlimited water refills at dinner. It’s important to stay hydrated!
Perhaps this is the kind of observation Americans like me use to reassure ourselves that it’s not all bad living in one of the most overworked and increasingly unequal of wealthy nations. Sure, if I lived in Denmark, I could have five to six-weeks of vacation time and get out of work at 4:35 p.m., but I’d have to pay for tap water at restaurants!!
After I made my comment, a man walked past us and said: “Croatia has the second-best tap water in the world!”
As he walked ahead of us, I started protesting, meekly “What I’m saying is that I want to drink your tap water. I want the wait staff to offer it to us.” But this fell on deaf ears.
After that, I did some research to find out if Croatia really had the number 2 best tap water in the world. It turned out it didn’t even make the top 10 list.
The sights you see in guidebooks and Travel Channel shows may be the same ones you visit on your vacation, but the experience is usually different–in good ways and bad. While some place may be a UNESCO sight, a “must-see,” a “highly recommended,” when you vacation, you can’t go everywhere, so you have to choose. In that spirit, I bring you “Was it worth it?” a series I will write from time to time in which I explore whether a highly recommended sight is actually worth doing.
I’ll kick off this series with Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam. Halong Bay is a dramatic sight, a place like few others. It is a large bay of hundreds of limestone islands that jut out from the water. Most are forested, and some are hollow with caves on the inside that are filled with stalactites and stalagmites. But it is very popular, and because this is Vietnam, which is incredibly accommodating to tourists, you will not get off the beaten path at Halong Bay unless you spend a good amount of time there a less trafficked areas. So is it worth it? Here’s my experience, with my conclusion at the end…
Most people who visit Halong Bay do as I did and take one of the dozens of boat tours that begin in Halong City. Many people book these at a tour company in Hanoi, as I did, or online. Because Vietnam has such a tourist economy and there seems to be little to limit the proliferation of tour companies, you can book all kinds of tours last minute, including a trip to Halong Bay. If you’re someone who likes feeling, like a Renaissance European explorer, that you discovered a preternaturally beautiful place that has in fact been inhabited by humans for ages, Halong Bay probably isn’t the place for you. I understand the desire to not want to be around other humans when traveling, believe me. But when you are in Vietnam, and in many places for that matter, you have to accept that many of the great sights are not yours alone.
Anyway, the main questions to ask yourself if you are going on the Halong trip are: How much do I want to pay which depends on how fancy do I want this trip to be? How long do I want to stay? And what do I want to do on the tour? I paid around $80 for a mid-range tour—an overnight boat trip that included three meals, a kayak ride, a cave tour, and a Vietnamese spring roll-making class. The boat itself had a deck we could relax on and a dining area with a bar (drinks not included). Like just about everything in Vietnam, this is an incredibly good deal for an American, and I could have gone even one level cheaper. If I had to do it again, I might have gone one night longer and done a more active trip.
Even though the bay was beautiful, my memories are less of the islands jutting out all around me than about the humor and minor irritations of that strange experience.
The trip began at my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where a man picked me up and brought me a couple of blocks away to wait for a travel van. When the (large) van arrived, a group of three–a guy and two women in their 20s who I later learned were from Mexico–were sprawled in the back, each taking up their own half row. The bus made its way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, where I had spent the day before peering into shops, puzzling over my map, and trying to cross streets without getting hit by a moto. As one might imagine, it took awhile to navigate these narrow streets in a car, and I was continuously impressed we didn’t knock over a bike rider or ride up on the sidewalk. The van stooped at several more area hotels to pick up the people who would be my future boatmates. The Mexican tourists soon had to give up their half-rows and sit packed next to each other. Meanwhile, every time we stopped at another hotel, a guy who I would later learn was from the Catalan region of Spain descended from the bus to the curb where he would light up a cigarette. He would only get to smoke about half of it before the bus packed in the next group of people and got ready to take off. And yet he got out and lit up just about every time we stopped at a hotel. It turned out this guy was the only person beside me on our boat who was traveling alone.
The drive took us past farms and through towns. A couple of hours in, we stopped at a rest stop that had a lot of ceramics and also sold food and stayed there for what seemed like an inordinately long time – perhaps enough time to come away with a few ceramic goods.
The rest stop
When about 4 hours after leaving Hanoi we entered Halong City, I was struck by its bleakness. There were boxy buildings, many of them hotels, that looked like they were built recently and yet already appeared dated.The van let us off in a parking lot, and we walked to an area where a bunch of boats were docked and dozens of people just like us were setting off on their trips. These small boats took us to our larger junk boats anchored in the bay. A junk boat is a type of sailboat that originated in China. Those sailing in Halong Bay pretty much all are for these cruises, and they have bedrooms, a dining area, kitchen, and outdoor deck.
The boats that took us out the the junk boats
My room in the junk boat was surprisingly nice and quiet. Our guide, a Vietnamese man who told us to call him Kevin, joked to me and the Spanish guy about the fact that he could have put us in the same room but didn’t. Thanks?
My room, with choice of bed
We had some time to relax and check out the boat, and I must have gone up to the deck at some point and enjoyed the view of the bay as we began to near what almost felt like a forest of islands and islets. The sky was grey with some sun trying to peak through at various points during the afternoon. Because it was winter, north Vietnam was “cold”—in the high 50s/low 60s. It wasn’t the kind of weather where you could laze around on the deck in your swimsuit, but it was the kind of weather where you still felt far from New York City in January.
After some time, the number of islands proliferated. We arrived at one of the most famous caves in the area, which I believe is called Sung Sot Cave. We got off the boat, viewed a sign about the Bay being a Heritage Site, ascended stairs and took pictures of a gorgeous view from a lookout point before entering. The cave was huge, with several chambers, able to fit the many other tours moving through. As Kevin walked us through the chambers, he pointed to various formations, telling us what they looked like–a couple in the throes of love, a dragon, an old woman, a young woman. He kept on promising that he would soon show us something that makes a woman very happy. When we got to that sight, we either laughed or groaned.
Climbing to the cave
Inside the cave
Once our cave tour was over, we were taken to a dock where we were given kayaks. We had to ride in two-person kayaks, and Kevin seemed to take a lot of glee in pairing me with the Spanish guy. I took less glee in it, especially because the Spanish guy wanted to row away from the others in our group, and I kept on worrying we would get back later than when we wee supposed to, and then I would be stranded in a sea of karsts with this guy. At least he didn’t light up.
We were the last ones to make it back, and I began to worry everyone thought we had fallen madly in love and could barely be bothered to come back. Then I reminded myself I was on vacation, and I’ll never see any of these people again. We had some time to get settled and come up to the dining room for a family style dinner and drinks. Some of us passengers, including a Norwegian father and daughter and a Danish husband and Thai wife, and I talked for awhile around the table after dinner about where else we had been in the region. The Norwegian father highly endorsed Phu Quoc, an island off of South Vietnam. The Spanish guy kept ordering Red Bull vodkas even though there was no evidence that the dining room was going to turn into a club. I learned that all of them were traveling for at least a month and that this was pretty normal if you’re not from America (I was taking 3 weeks from work at a job I had been at for four years. In the U.S. taking this much time off provokes either the reaction: “Wow, I could never do that, but GOOD FOR YOU,” or “Wow, I didn’t even know people could do that.” In Europe, Australia, and South America, 3 weeks in a far away region like Southeast Asia is pretty short).
Getting ready to kayak
At some point I went out to our deck and saw the many other boats docked not far from ours, and I imagined people from all corners of the world in each boat, talking about their Southeast Asia experiences over Halong beers and maybe even Red Bull and vodkas.
Other junk boats light up the bay
The next morning, the sky was clearing, and we had time after breakfast to relax on the deck. I was finally able to enjoy the warmth of the sun and read. At some point, there was some kind of a boat switch, so that the passengers on our boat who were doing the two night trip were transferred to another boat. Meanwhile, several passengers who had been at sea for two nights got onto our boat, which was heading back to shore. Some new people came up on the deck and claimed some chairs, while a nice couple who I had spoken with the night before left the deck to switch boats. I realized how much coordination must be going on behind the scenes for these trips to work.
In the late morning, Kevin tried to gather people into the dining room to make spring rolls, which wasn’t the draw I would have expected. Making spring rolls turn out to be more difficult then one might expect, particularly wetting the delicate rice sheet and rolling it around the sliced cucumber, carrots, and pork, but when they fried them up and gave them to us at lunch, the rolls did end up being tasty.
Spring roll triumph
After the class, I went to the deck and saw that there were fewer limestone islands. Soon we were on shore, waiting for our bus at a café and souvenir stop. Because of some kind of delay, we had to wait for over an hour. When we got on the bus, we were again packed in next to each other. There were even seats that folded into the aisle, so getting up to go anywhere on the 3.5 hour ride back to Hanoi was not really an option.
Giving new meaning to the aisle seat?
Behind me, four Americans in their 20s were discussing what city one of the guys should live in and debating whether Detroit was cool or “too hood.” Then they had a long conversation with their guide about how best to arrange picking up in Hanoi the bikes they planned to ride to Hue. There is something about traveling in this region that can and probably should make a person from the West feel uncomfortably privileged, and this conversation seemed to evoke that for me.
In front of me, a family from Taiwan were quietly engaged in their devices.
We drove through miles and miles and miles of city outskirts before arriving in the Old City and getting dropped off at hotels. About an hour later, a man from my hotel was driving me by moto to the train station in Hanoi, where I boarded an overnight train to Hue for my next adventure.
Was it worth it? Do I think Halong Bay was worth it? I’m not sure. The landscape was stunning and unlike nothing I had ever seen, but it put me pretty face to face with the reality that I was part of some strange tourist economy that made the experience all feel a bit staged. That being said, the experience itself was interesting. I maybe didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked of a panoramic emerald bay with forested islands all around—there were too many other boats nearby to get that many clear shots—but I did get an experience. And if you’re a tourist in this region, you simply have to accept the fact that it will often be crowded and that the idea of getting off the beaten path to claim your own space is as fraught as the heavy development of resorts and hotels that you’ll see up and down the coast of Vietnam.
If you do this trip, I suggest staying 2 nights so you can get farther out and going to Cat Ba Island where you can do more outdoor activities. Definitely don’t do a day trip. Maybe do an overnight trip like I did, but don’t fret if you can’t make it this time around. Aim for the dryer and warmer part of the year.
If you have a budget when you travel, which most of us do, you must prioritize what you spend. To do this, I have found it helpful to break my spending down into five categories:
It is helpful to decide before you go on vacation what among these five categories you care about the most and the least. Are you traveling to San Sebastian, Spain, to eat at three-Michelin star restaurants? You might want to go light then on the souvenirs and stay in AirBnB accommodations. Plunked down close to $1,500+ on airfare to fly to Southeast Asia over the holiday season? Fortunately you are going to a part of the world where you can save on everything else. Are you going somewhere like Hawaii or Costa Rica, where water and land activities are among the biggest draws? You’ll probably have to spend a good sum on expenses like diving, snorkeling trips to harder to reach spots, surfing, parasailing, ziplining, etc. But there are other ways to save at these tropical paradises.
Understanding your personality type will help guide your travel priorities. I’m a maximizer, so I want to do everything. I am not the kind of person who at the last minute buys a package airfare plus resort deal with plans to spend a whole vacation relaxing and letting the resort give me everything I need because I would feel like I was missing out on being active and seeing what a place has to offer. Others are much happier than me to stay in one place, relax, and spend a few days in the utmost comfort.
Even though wanting everything on a vacation sounds like a recipe for going over-budget, I like to think of it another way. I like to think of my vacation approach as a sampler—getting a little bit of everything but not spending too much on any particular area.
On my most recent trip to Hawaii, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see diverse sea life. This meant either snorkeling or diving in Hawaii’s pristine waters. But what to do and where to do it? I decided I’d forgo spending all of the money and energy on diving (maybe some day) and focus on snorkeling. And I decided to avoid a popular and well-regarded snorkeling spot on Oahu in favor of another popular but less touristed and I think even better-regarded spot on the Big Island, Kealakekua bay, which a friend who had lived in Hawaii recommended.
Kealakekua Bay view from the Captain Zodiac raft (Feb 2016)
Of course, the choices were not over even then. I had to choose how to get out to Kealakekua Bay. I realized the options ran from taking a big boat with two waterslides and a barbecue to making a challenging hike to the Bay with my rented snorkeling gear. I didn’t feel like I needed the bells and whistles of the boat, but I didn’t feel comfortable making a challenging hike and then snorkeling on my own. So I chose something in between: taking a motorized raft led by experienced guides (Check out my Yelp review of Captain Zodiac). The difference between a 4-hour trip on the raft and a 4.5 hour trip on the big boat is $95 and $135 respectively. (I took a 5-hour “beat the crowd” trip, which was $110). A side benefit of this trip was that we got to see whales and dolphins on our 15-plus mile trip down to the Bay. I probably wouldn’t have seen that with a hike or even on the kayak trip. As our guide said after we saw a whale “You just saved $85 on a whale watching cruise.” I’ll write in a future post about how best to take a “kill two birds with one stone” approach to traveling.
One of the greatest feelings of accomplishments I have is right after I have booked a flight for a major vacation. I finally pulled the trigger and finally made the time for me and for one of my greatest passions, which is to travel. This means the opportunity to have my mind expanded beyond what I know, to meet people I would never meet in my day-to-day life, and to see that there are other ways people live vastly different lives from mine. I think for instance of the people who work at the coffee plantation I visited in Kona, the fishermen I saw on a tour of the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, and the volunteer at the San Satiro church in Milan who told me about the history of the tromp l’oeil painting at the front of the chapel.
The Holualoa Coffee Plantation near Kona, Hawai’i (Feb 2016)
A fishing canoe on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (Jan 2015)
San Satiro Church’s trompe l’oeil in Milan, Italy (Sept 2015)
What I typically do not think about when I first book a trip is the challenge of it. As I traveled more in the last several years, I have realized that booking a ticket is only the first step for those of us who don’t have unlimited funds and who see the time we spend traveling as one of the most important fruits of the hard work we put in at our jobs day in and day out.
Now that you have locked yourself in with a ticket, it’s time to actually plan the trip. This means booking hotel reservations, researching transportation, making sure you identify what you want to do in the place you are visiting and make any necessary arrangements to do it. After all, you are committing your time and money, two things most of us do not have in abundance. This is probably more time consuming than most of us bargained for. I imagine some people would prefer to avoid this type of work altogether and so they forgo vacations.
When I prepare for a trip in fact, I find myself drawing on administrative and coordinating skills I have used professionally. The undervalued skill of planning ahead, if done right, can save you money and increase the value of your time, yet it is time-consuming and as a result can be stressful.
If this unexpected challenge of traveling sounds like too much pressure, there is also an unexpected satisfaction in planning a trip. This satisfaction lies in seeing the fruits of your research bear out, of arriving at that hostel whose Yelp reviews you pored over to find out that it indeed is the friendly place that people promised and that the gamble you took by not booking a twice as expensive hotel room was worth it. It is the satisfaction you get from biking around Honolulu to a restaurant slightly off the beaten trail of Waikiki because you figured out it made sense to save money and forgo a third day with a rental car. This satisfaction lies at the intersection of money saved and memories created. There is something unexpectedly fulfilling about a great experience created out of research and limited financial resources.
Snakes on Elaine: Trying on a new scarf during a Mekong Delta tour in Vietnam (Jan 2015)
So with this reflection on the challenge and satisfaction of traveling, I offer you posts of travel tips and stories for those of you who do not have unlimited time or unlimited funds to hire people with time to plan your trip. Based on recent travels to places like Croatia, Hawaii, Southeast Asia, and the California Coast, I’ll share with you tips and tricks to traveling. These posts are intended for the middle class worker who rightfully wants to take a restful, relaxing, and enriching vacation but feels to overwhelmed to plan & thus forgoes traveling altogether. It is intended for single women and men who don’t want their solo status to hinder their sense of adventure. It is for people who like saving money when they can but know that sometimes it is worth it to spend a little. Based on my own successes and mistakes, I will help you travel better and in the process feel more confident about your ability to independently plan a vacation and enjoy the fruits of your labor.