Now You See It–Now You Don’t

When I started seriously traveling I bought a camera.  Two actually.  Traveling and photography and complementary disciplines.

I religiously took photos across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.  I catalogued the pictures based on location, who I was with, why I was there.  I am great at creating organization systems, and I had I system I was very proud of.

I published some of the pictures on Facebook, some on this blog. Others I just kept.  I also digitized all my old photo albums and added those to the library, painstakingly noting dates and locations.

It was all going swimmingly, until…

Yep.

I lost it all.  I had too many photos and iPhoto became corrupt and somehow the backups weren’t backing up my pictures and my hard disk backup was also corrupted.  The chances of all this happening are infinitesimal.  The geniuses at Apple assured me I was special.

I didn’t feel special.  I felt miserable.  I felt picked on.

Until, I had an epiphany.  Two actually.

The first:  if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it still freaking fell.  Just because I don’t have the pictures of what I did and where I went and who I met didn’t mean it didn’t happen.

fallen tree

Pictures are a memento of travel, not the point of it.  I still climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I still dove at the Great Barrier Reef.  I still floated in the Dead Sea.  It sucks that I don’t have the pics, but I have the memories.

The second:  things are just things.  And, they can often be recreated.  When my mom died I inherited the ring she wore everyday.  It was a garnet (my birthstone) surrounded by pearls, in a diamond shape setting on a simple gold band.  I loved that ring when my mom wore it, and spent hours playing with it while it was on her finger.  It meant the world to me after she died.  Until…

Yep.

I lost it.  At my company’s gym.  I took it off to workout, and somehow it disappeared.  I was miserable.

Until I had an epiphany.  Things are just things.

Mom

My mom didn’t raise me to be materialistic.  This ring was just important to me because of the symbolic connection to my mom. So, I went to a jeweler and had them make me a replica.  It means as much to me as the original would.

So, with my pictures, I found a company who can restore corrupt digital files. They said they were able to restore 18,357 of the 19,146 files that were on the hard drive.  The restored files are sitting unopened under my desk, waiting for me to be ready to start my photo library from scratch again.

American Female on the Loose: Part II

In writing this series of entries, I have realized I actually do think about gender more than I knew.  So much so, in fact, that I have developed my own set of expectations (okay, maybe biases or stereotypes is more accurate) for how I will be treated by men in different cultures.

I used to think the USA was gender neutral.  I grew up here, and because of that experience, I am fortunate enough to assume that I will be treated as an equal member of society.  No one looks twice at me driving myself, paying for myself, walking by myself.

I have learned that is not universally true around the world.

A case in point is the Middle East.

I took at sightseeing trip to Israel, and then went scuba diving in the Red Sea.  When I got to Israel, I started to understand what it would really be like to be somewhere gender neutral.  (Disclaimer: I know this may be offensive to Israeli men, but I am only recounting my experiences.)

In Israel, my friend Valeria and I were pushed, shoved, had doors slammed in our faces, were expected to carry our own (very heavy) scuba tanks and kayaks, and even had tall men push us aside at a concert so they could stand in front of us and get a better view.

These are behaviors I take for granted as being frowned upon in the “gender neutral” USA.  It made me realize that the USA is not really gender neutral, and I am okay with that.  I don’t mind living in a nation that is “gender aware,” where the taxi driver will help me with my luggage and my male friends will offer me their sweaters if it is cold outside.

I decided (because I am always doing root cause analysis in the back of my mind) that, in Israel, the fact that Israeli woman serve right beside men in the army is, perhaps, why there is such gender-blindness in how men treat women in public.  I don’t mean to imply that I am against women serving in the U.S. military – quite the contrary.

But because 100% of the population serves in the military in Israel, and woman are enlisted along with men, my theory is that has changed the societal norms for that country.  Thoughts?

So, coming from Israel where we felt genderless, it was a complete shock when we crossed the border into Jordan.  On the one hand, we were looked after.  Our dive masters carried our heavy tanks, took care of our fins, and offered to escort us to dinner afterwards.

They were protective and kind, and fun to be around.  On the other hand, I had one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life there.  When my dive master, Akmed, and I were coming out of the ocean after snorkeling, a man was walking by with his two sons.  The man asked if I would take a picture with his boys (2 and 5 years old).  I said yes, by now used to being my own walking tourist attraction.

But, his sons were terrified of me: a foreign speaking blond lady wearing just a bathing suit (in a conservative Muslim country where woman’s bodies are modestly covered).  They started crying, and screaming, and pleading, and grabbing on to their fathers’ legs, trying desperately not to be forced any closer to me.  I smiled and started to walk on, sure that Dad saw how bad an idea the photo was.

Nope.  The father started to physically force the boys closer to me, and their screams raised to bloody murder level, as huge tears poured down their faces and snot streamed out of their noses.  I kept walking, and the father started yelling something at me and Akmed.  Akmed shook his head no, and told me to keep walking.  Apparently the dad wanted us to help wrangle his hysterically terrified children, and now wanted me to pick his younger son up for a picture.

We escaped into the confines of the dive center, with the children’s inconsolable wails and the father’s angry shouts audible through the walls.

It’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for.  I claim to want gender neutrality, but when I experienced it, I was irritated at the disrespect and wanted to be seen as a woman.  Hours later, I was treated very differently for being a woman, and longed to disappear into the cloak of gender neutrality.

Those contrasting experiences within one trip highlight the magic of travel.  Travel isn’t just an opportunity to learn about the world, it is a chance to learn about yourself.  And, in some cases, what I’ve learned (about a place or about me) can be confusing, or uncomfortable.  In all cases, I am a better person for having learned it.

American Female on the Loose: Part I

Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender.  I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost.  Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.

Here are just a few cherished nuggets…

Africa

Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to.  I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating.  And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.

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Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes.  I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.

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Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.

Morocco

Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments.  And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories.  This is true about my Moroccan experiences.

An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.

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I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara.  While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated.  Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.

Portugal

In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge.  The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender.  But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.

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Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.

Zanzibar

There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar.  Two occurred in Stone Town.  One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices.  The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.

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But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.

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I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.

What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.

If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target.  But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.

The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum.  Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other.  Then, they each want to take a picture with me.

The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?”  I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?”  But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.

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So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself?  But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures.  I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady.  But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today.  And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.

The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day.  I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand.  The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.

However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed.  While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards.  So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.

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I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.

Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way.  But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).

As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman.  As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.

Red Light, Green Light

Have you ever been to one of those Brazilian steakhouses, a “churrascaria”?  The ones with the roving waiters proffering skewers of meat?  Where you are armed with a cardboard card, which has one side that is red, indicating that you don’t want any more meat at the moment, and one side which is green, which means you are interested in more?

I was thinking the other day that airplanes should give those to passengers.  We can use the red side to signal, politely, to our seat mates that we aren’t open to talking at the moment.  And the green side can signal that, yes, if you want to tell me about your grandson’s clarinet recital, now would be an okay time.

red light, green light

What do you think?

Happy New Year!

How do you mark a milestone?  Like a birthday or New Year’s?  These are important events in our culture that we celebrate with friends and family.  The passing of a year in someone’s life, or in our collective lives.

How do you stop one from bleeding into the other?

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Years ago, my friend Ellen and I decided that instead of celebrating NYE with a party, champagne and noisemakers, we would travel.  That way, we could remember how we capped off each year from a distance, and move forward to launch the next.

So far, we have traveled for every New Year’s since we made this decision, often with other friends joining us.  Our trips have taken us to:

Costa Rica

nye costa rica

 

Dublin

nye dublin

Key West

Lake Tahoe

Las Vegas

London

New Orleans

New York

Scotland

nye scotland

Sydney

nye sydney

The Bahamas

nye bahamas

This year we went to Romania, to visit Dracula’s castle and stay in an ice hotel — you know, the standard way most people celebrate the turnover into the new year..

nye ice hotel nye dracula

Each of these trips is more memorable than any New Year’s party could possibly be.  For us, life is about experience.  Celebrating the new year and toasting the passing one is about honoring the experiences we have had in the past year, and anticipating the ones we will have in the coming one.  And doing that while in the midst of a travel experience, one full of new sights, sounds, feelings, and more, is the most fitting way for us to really feel the potency of change.

So with that, Happy New Year to all! Here’s to making 2013 a year full of stepping out of our comfort zones, and searching out new experiences, whether they be abroad, or right here at home.

Places Better Experienced Through A Photo..

There are some trips that don’t live up to the anticipation.  Some places that I am glad I visited, mostly because I would have been so disappointed if I never made it.  Places that until I was there, I was so sure it was going to be amazing.  But, they just weren’t amazing.  They somehow didn’t live up to the hype; or the cost and effort of getting there weren’t worth the payoff; or for whatever reason they just weren’t fantastic trips—some weren’t even good trips.

Some of those places have a longer term payoff:  the pictures may be awesome, or the stories may be fun to retell, or I may have learned something useful in terms of history or science or politics or art.  So, its not that they were a total bust.  But there is no getting around the fact that they were basically let downs.

Uluru was a place like that for me.

I first went to Australia with my mom and step dad when I was in the 6th grade.  We went for Christmas and New Years, so it was summer time there.  I remember them talking about how it was too hot to visit Ayers Rock, even though my step dad really wanted to climb it with me.  (Back then, people still called it Ayers Rock, and people still climbed it).

I had been back to Australia for two more visits during the same time of year, and each time it was with building regret that I didn’t go see Ayers Rock.

So, in 2010 when I was planning my travels for all the places I wanted most to see in the world, Ayers Rock was on the list, and I made sure my trip Down Under was NOT in the heart of summer.

Getting to Ayers Rock, as the flight destination and town are stilled called (versus Uluru which is the proper way to refer to the rock itself) is no small task.  Flights are expensive, and relatively long.

And, once you land you are immediately engulfed by the heat.  Even in the very early spring when I went, it was hot.  Hot.  HOT.   But, I love the heat, so that wasn’t the problem for me.

When I got to the hotel, I dumped my bags in my room, and headed to sign up for the 1:30pm shuttle to the rock.  The shuttles run at fixed times, and it was frustrating to learn that the return shuttle was at 5pm, so I had just under 3 hours to do the 10.5km base walk around the rock.  That meant no lingering, no marinating in the experience, just hustling around the rock.

But, as soon as I started the walk, I was wishing it was over.  Not because of the intense, engulfing heat.  But because of the damn flies.  There are these horrid flies whose sole purpose in life seems to be to irritate Uluru visitors.  They buzz around your ears, eyes, nose, and land on your arms and legs.  The walk around the rock becomes something of a spastic-looking dance, with the constant swatting at these pests.

But, even with the hustle, and the heat and the flies, I was awed by the rock. It is majestic.  And powerful.  And mystical.  And massive.  All the things it is supposed to be.

I didn’t climb the rock because it is offensive to the Anangu.  It seems every country but Japan has stopped promoting the climb, and only 38% of visitors last year did it.  (For Japan, I was told the climb has cultural significance, in 2 ways.  First, they like climbing things because it gets them closer to god.  And second, there was a spiritual Japanese movie made at rock 15 years ago or so that many people identify with).  In any case, they will close the climb in a year or two.

I was determined to get the most of my trip, so the next morning I did the 4am “Desert Awakenings” tour.  We drove to a sand dune, which we climbed up and waited for the sunrise.  While we waited, we had tea, coffee and orange juice.  And, then, bacon and egg sandwiches made onsite by a cook.  The net net of which meant I was watching the sunrise with bacon grease dripping down my arms, and spotted across my clothes.

That afternoon I took the 1:15 shuttle to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), a mountain 50km from Uluru, which is said to be even more striking.  It was over 90 degrees, but I was excited for the 3hr/7.5km “Valley of the Winds Walk” I was planning to do at Kata Tjuta.  It is shorter but more difficult than the Uluru base walk.

And hotter.  Way hotter.  I was crusted in salt when I finished.  I finished in under 2 hours, so I had an hour to wait for the return shuttle.  I thought it would be lovely to sit in the shade, look at the rocks, listen to the wind, birds and crickets, and cool off.  Except, the spot I picked (the only shady spot) is the same shade all the tour guides use to orient their groups.  It was like a parade of nations, as the Japanese, then Italian, then German, then more Japanese came into “my spot”.  I was also attacked by biting ants during my hour of “rest”.  So I had the dilemma of sitting in the direct sunlight, or succumbing to incessant ant bites.  There isn’t an easy answer to that.

At 5:30, the shuttle showed up and headed to the sunset viewing of Uluru.  Which was beautiful, but I was envious of all the folks who thought ahead and have tables and wine and cheese.

So, yes, the sunrise, sunset, and rocks themselves were spectacular.  But, I don’t know that seeing them in person made them any more awesome than looking at photographs.  In fact, the heat, the flies, the ants, the crowds, and the frustrating shuttle times made the in-person experience unpleasant.

And, I grew to feel conflicted about the indigenous people.  They are reclaiming a lot of locations as being sacred, etc.  And, there are notices all over asking tourists to try to respect and learn about their culture, not just take a picture of the rock and leave.  Fine and good, and something I’d be really into doing.  But, its not actually possible.  They say its all secret.  They can’t tell you about their history.  They share a few stories from their oral tradition about the creation of Uluru, but that’s it.  They won’t explain why certain places are sacred.  So, I found it a frustrating request that they are making.

So, the bottom line of my trip, is that I recommend skipping Uluru, and spending an extra day or two at one of the other amazing locations across Australia.  I left feeling unfilled and disappointed.  But, I do have some amazing photos!

Reading In Transit

I love reading.  I read everything that’s in front of me, and I constantly seek out new material.

OK, I don’t read everything that’s in front of me.  But what I mean is, I find myself constantly examining cereal boxes, the minute details on boarding passes, the ingredients on my dog’s food package…

But for some reason, I loathe instruction manuals.  I think it has something to do with wanting to figure out “how to”, not being told.  For the same reason I am not really someone who purchases travel guides.  I’d much rather read about a city through history books, biographies or novels, than to be told “how to”.

My inexplicable aversion to instruction manuals aside, I take great pleasure in reading.  So, as you’d expect, I like to read when traveling.  I read in airports, on airplanes, in hotels.  Up until recently, this presented a big challenge:  how could I pack enough material to keep myself entertained for a long trip?

I remember when I went to India with my cousin for two weeks, I observed her approach to this problem.  She had religiously saved the New York Times magazine every week for what must have been six months, all in preparation for our trip.  And to top it off, these were combined with six months worth of New Yorkers.

The beauty of this approach is that she got to discard the material as she read it.  I, on the other hand, had packed fifteen books, and was stuck lugging them with us for the whole trip.  (I cannot bare the thought of throwing books away, and have never figured out how to best get them in good hands on the road). Adopting this wise approach, I was well armed with magazines when my sister and I spent three weeks traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans Siberian Railroad.

I had three duffle bags full of magazines, that we realized weighed 75 pounds collectively when we checked into our flight to Beijing.  75 pounds of reading material, that would steadily get lighter, and then I would eventually have empty bags to load up with souvenirs.  Perfect plan, right? As we boarded the train in Beijing we had to go through security.  I think our bags were something like:  one backpack each of clothes, one giant duffle for food, one backpack for toiletries, and three duffles full of the magazines I had been saving to read during the trip.

As our seven bags were going through the conveyer belt, there were heaps of other travelers crawling all over our stuff trying to get to their bags.  We were a spectacle, trying to collect everything and balance it right, and run to our train (we hadn’t factored in the 45 minutes of security, so we were cutting it close to departure time).  Then, on the way to the train, one of the duffles exploded, sending magazines everywhere.  So, in a sweaty, hot, stressed hurry, we frantically collected the strewn magazines and stuffed them into the duffle. And, my magazine bags were heavy.  Really dense and heavy.  Even without the explosion, it was cumbersome and burdensome to have them.

As we rushed to the train, I could tell my sis was annoyed at me, and, she was right to be.  I had been afraid of the confrontation that would ensue once we got to our cabin, but once we got settled in, she calmly looked at me and said:  “I think we need to rethink our packing strategy.”  And, I loved her all the more for that understated commentary.  I ended up discarding two bags of magazines when we got off the train in Mongolia, which made all the difference in the world in our ability to maneuver.

Fast forward to  last year, when I traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Mali, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Israel, Turkey, Germany, Jordan, Amsterdam.  All with one Kindle.  I grew to love that Kindle.  I had been so hesitant to get one, because I love the form factor of books, magazines, paper.  But, I inherited one from my aunt when she upgraded to a new device, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert.  The battery life was amazing, so I could take it with me and not have to charge it for a week at a time.  And I filled it up with over eighty books.  Here’s the list of the ones I liked the best:

A lot of these books are about traveling, or travelers.  As someone who is passionate about both reading and traveling, it is easy to understand why those topics appeal to me.  I love reading about far away lands, or close by cities through someone else’s eyes.  I love hearing stories about fellow wanderers, whether real or imagined.  And, I love that now I can do that without having to carry 75 pounds of magazines!!