Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

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I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

The Queen's 80th Birthday - Paddington Arrives

From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

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Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Ants On The Tracks

A focal part of my relationship with my niece and nephew is reading.

Sure, we do a lot of tickling, and kissing, and hugging, and chasing, and shoulder rides, and laughing.  There are water slide parks, and cheeseburgers, and train museums…and other things, too.

But, every time I visit them, I bring them each a book.  And, every time I put them to bed, we read.

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So, it is no surprise that traveling with them involves books, too.

First, there is deciding which books they will bring on any given trip (they are allowed three each).

Then, at each gift store we visit for each train museum (our trips usually involve train museums), there is deciding if they will buy a book or a toy, and which one.  I love that they are completely torn by the decision: to them, a book is just as tempting as a toy.  It is so gratifying to see them struggle over whether they want a new book or a something that beeps and lights up and moves.  They fully understand the magic of books:  books are magic carpets that can take you to new and exiting lands where you’ll join new friends on an adventure of sorts.

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Finally, there is the joy of reading the new books when we get back home, and, in a very real way, reliving the vacation a little bit.  The book becomes a special kind of magic carpet, that no only transports us to the places within its pages, but ALSO has the power to transport us back to our vacation.  It becomes a secret ticket that only has that power for us, the people who were on the original trip when the book was procured.

Last summer we went to the Wisconsin Dells, and visited two train museums.  We got the book, “Ants on the Tracks”.  Every time we read it, we of course visit the ants on the tracks.  But, we also get to remember the whole vacation: water slides, fudge, trains, pools, duck boats.  Go figure — all that in a book about ants on a track.

I am incredibly passionate about books.  And travel.  And spending time with my niece and nephew.  When all three of these activities marry, I am absolutely giddy with joy.

Temazcal

Guest post by Rebekah Marcano (|| http://www.facebook.com/lazytrainer ||)

My good friend Cindy (also known as Cynthia), invited me on a fantasy island, magical, dream, spa vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico at a very luxurious hotel: Maroma. The moment we stepped onto the property, we were greeted with fresh mojitos, music playing in the dining room, the ocean just footsteps from our duplex suite named “Cuarenta”.

Our daily routine was simple. We lounged on beds on the beach as we ate guacamole, contemplated life, read books and soaked up the sun. We got facials, four hand massages, took yoga classes, pilates, and ran on the beach! Occasionally we would leave Maroma on excursions like swimming with dolphins, kayaking, swimming through caves, swinging from trees on ropes and landing in waterfalls!

We even drove one day to see the Mayan ruins in Ixtapa!

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Life was bliss. Looking through the spa menu, we thought we might try a “temazcal”, a health and spiritual ritual to cleanse the mind, body and spirit using a cement dome-like sweat lodge and volcanic rocks.

It was our only “to do” for the day. So when our wonderful waiters asked if we would like to sample tequila after breakfast, explaining some were aged this way and others that way, we thought, “Sure, why not?” Or maybe we asked them about the tequila, and why there were so many and how they were different.  Not sure of the order, but we started sampling tequila after breakfast.

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I could actually taste how they were different. Some were spicier. Smoother. Some burned your throat more. Others went down like water. We sipped soda water in between tastings. And when the room started spinning as I stood on a chair in the very quiet, peaceful, highend boutique-y, exclusive gated resort at 11:00 in the morning, I realized…tequila is NOT wine. And you do not have tequila tastings.

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After dropping my phone in the toilet and “falling asleep” on the floor, I woke up debating if I should still attend the Temazcal spa ritual. “Well it is heated, so it should get the toxins out like a sauna,” Cindy and I rationalized.

Stumbling over to the little hot box, we were greeted by many other guests. Somehow we were going to all fit in this tiny triangle hut.

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We squished inside as the leader added burning coals to the center, making the tent hotter and hotter. She chanted and sang. Added more coals. This tent was really, really HOT. And it was getting hotter. But it felt good. She passed around a bucket of water to dump over ourselves, drums to play, and fruit to rub over our bodies. We chanted. We sang.

At first I was timid, only whispering the words. Then I could feel them in my throat, then in my belly. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid of what others would think of my voice and the words sort of took over my body and I could shout them – scream them! Even though I didn’t know what the words meant, I felt what they meant. I could feel the words’ feelings and power. I LOVE WORDS! I LOVE THE OCEAN! I LOVE LIFE!

And suddenly I wasn’t drunk anymore! I cried tears of joy and felt a sense of oneness with the universe, and a love for all around me. I was just so happy. Blissful. Euphoric. I was a blank slate ready to paint my life as the portrait I wanted…

Or maybe I was still drunk. Either way, this was pretty cool.

Could tequila plus a Temazcal lead the path to some sort of spiritual enlightenment? I really believe it was a special combination!  Perhaps the waiters were in on the magical ritual, and the tequila was just what we needed to complete the mind-body-spirit! One things for sure: Maroma was a magical place!

Lietuva Part III: The Surreal Highlights

  • Sitting in the Minister of Information’s office, being asked what I suggested his country do to gain admittance to the European Union.
  • Being left in The Colonel’s car in the middle of Soviet block housing for hours in the freezing cold while my Dad and The Colonel delivered care packages to people.
  • Pounding on my Dads’ aunt and uncle’s door unannounced at 1am, and staying up for four hours with them and their daughters as they prepared an impromptu family reunion party.
  • Hiking up to the top of a cobblestone path on a broken ankle to get a view of Vilnius, panorama-style.

In rereading this entry, and the previous entries about my trip, I’ve realized it may sound like I am whining.  Far from it.

This was an experience I am grateful for.  Traveling with my Dad to his homeland enabled me to understand him so much better.  Seeing the museums, eating the food, hearing the music, all rendered a terribly potent appreciation for my heritage far more than before.

Meeting the incredibly warm, hospitable, funny, and smart people has made me proud to be called Lithuanian.

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Living Abroad: Travel or Life?

I just read “Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by Rosecrans Baldwin, and have been really wondering: if you are somewhere for an extended stay, when does your status change from traveling abroad to living abroad?

Baldwin’s book is fantastic.  Having worked and lived in foreign countries, I could completely relate to his excitement, pain, disappointment, and joy.  And his writing is a pleasure to read; I found myself laughing and cringing alongside him and his 18-month adventure living and working in Paris.

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Beyond a doubt, Baldwin lived in Paris.  I’m just trying to figure out what the milestones are that made his stay there living, and not an extended business trip.

Is it going to the doctor?  I’ve had to seek out medical care for myself and others in foreign locals, none of which I’ve lived in.  So, it can’t be that.

It is having a flat of his own?  I’ve done the extended stay in houses and flats.  But those trips were definitely vacations.

Every milestone I think of, I can think of a time I did that activity somewhere that I wasn’t remotely considering a home.

So, what is it?

I’m starting to think it’s intangible.  It’s a state of mind.  If you think of someplace as home, then it is.  Can it really be that simple?

In my heart, I believe I have lived in two foreign cities: Prague and Buenos Aires.

I did a study abroad in Prague for the final semester of my senior year of college.  And, my time there really felt like living, not traveling.  I studied the language.  I made a bunch of friends.  I fell in love.  I traveled away from Prague, and felt like I was returning “home” when I returned to the city.  I found local gems in hidden nooks and crannies where I bought pastries in the mornings and beer in the evenings.  I mapped out my favorite running paths.  And, maybe most telling, I spent a lot of time not doing much at all; just being.

I went to Buenos Aires for a couple months for work, and also felt like I was living there, not visiting.  I had a metro card, learned to speak Spanish, locals became good friends, and again, after traveling around the region, always felt like I was coming back “home” to Buenos Aires after the trip.  I danced the tango, drank gallons of wine and coffee, went to fútbol matches, and bought an amazing collection of Prune purses.  And my god did I eat: empañadas, pizza, lamb, steak, pasta, cheese, dulce de leche…

I felt like home while I was living in both cities, and now, when I go back and visit, I feel like I am visiting an old friend.  In fact, I have taken friends to both cities, and excitedly tried to show them “My” Prague and “My” Buenos Aires.

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But, one of the truths about living somewhere and not vacationing there, is that your version of the city may not be so exciting to a tourist.

It’s not about the bells and the whistles when you live somewhere.  It’s about the core.  The rhythm of your morning coffee at your favorite café, figuring out just where to stand to get into the metro the fastest, finding the little club that hosts your favorite local bands. It’s about the heartbeat of everyday life.

Lietuva Part II: The Tale of The Vodka and The Ankle

The first time I went to Lithuania was ten years ago.  I bought my Dad a ticket for Christmas, and we made the trip in early spring.

My Dad greeted me at the airport in Vilnius, drunk, with a Colonel from the Lithuanian army who was somehow commandeered into becoming my Dad’s chauffeur.

me and dad in lithuania

I should back up and clarify a few things:

1)   My Dad went a few days early, since I had to work and was limited to a one-week vacation.  So, it was after several days of family reunion parties that he was meeting me at the airport.

2)   The fact that my Dad was inebriated when he met me wasn’t a big surprise.  First, see point 1 above.  Second, anyone who has met my Dad would smile and chuckle when I say that, even if there weren’t several days of family reunion parties involved.

3)   The fact that my Dad had somehow managed to get an official of the Lithuanian army to serve as his driver wasn’t shocking, either.  It’s not that my Dad has a crazy amount of clout.  He has a crazy amount of chutzpa, and a fair amount of luck.

The Colonel drove us to my Dads’ wifes’ cousin’s farm outside of Kaunas, where I was greeted with a warmth and enthusiasm that was touching.  And overwhelming.  The only English speaker was the eight-year-old, and she was also the only shy person in the whole family.  So, things were a little chaotic for my jet-lagged brain to process.  And even more so once the bottle of vodka was opened, the Euro-techno music started playing, and the dancing began.

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I woke up the next morning not being able to see (my glasses were missing), with a broken ankle, severely hung over, with a camera full of great photos (mostly taken from the floor, I presume, after I had broken my ankle), and with no clue as to where my Dad was.

When my Dad returned from the store (The Colonel had taken him to get more beer), I asked to go to a doctor for my ankle.  This was the first of a series of repeated requests over the next few days, all of which were met with sympathy, and an alternative suggestion (we wrapped it in a bandage, rubbed it with ointment, went in search of a psychic healer – twice – and kept me pumped full of anti-inflammatories and pain killers).

After a hike to see the carp farm, the Colonel took my Dad and I to our new home: army barracks.

I should back up and clarify a few more things:

1)   Visiting a carp farm when one is hung over should be avoided at all costs.

2)   Walking through the muddy, uneven fields of a carp farm when one has a broken ankle should be avoided at all costs.

3)   Sleeping in the army barracks when one is a single, foreign woman should be avoided at all costs.

But hey, the best experiences are the ones that involve a little discomfort and misfortune..

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