beauty is dirt caked fingernails

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Beauty is fleeting.”

Red lips pouting at me from the mirror, highlighter catching the fluorescent light and making my cheekbones shimmer subtly, a highly arched eyebrow raised in scrutiny, I gave myself the once-over, attempting to leave no detail unnoticed.

Growing up in a world where beauty is often touted as the ultimate achievement, especially for women, I find it difficult not to care about what I look like, at least to a certain point.

Fortunately, there’s a different narrative.

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Red-ripe Tomatoes…Guess who’s makin’ pizza Friday?!

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Pon di Oustop

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The Eastern View, Blue Mountains

Around dusk at my new home, I climb pon di oustop* to see Kingston turn on her lights as the dimming sun shoots pink, purple, and peach across the sky. Kingston begins to sparkle like a diamond that catches the sun’s rays and refracts them to all eyes watching, reminding me of colder nights spent crick-necked with crêpe in hand as I stared up at the Eiffel Tower glittering in the City of Lights.

It’s a funny thing, to be reminded of the past by a shimmer, a passing breeze, or a scent. But what is a human if not an amalgamation of senses, emotions, and reflections? Continue reading

Have you heard? There’s a rumor in the travel world…

THIS is all you need to travel...well this, a passport, and a fearless attitude!

THIS is all you need to travel…well this, a passport, and a fearless attitude!

Half-stuck in dreamworld, I hazily lifted my limbs from their nightly repose, figuring I might already be running late. Before leaving the house I checked my phone to make sure I had all the necessary papers for the Russian visa in my backpack. I remembered to cut the photos into their proper 2×2 squares, and even ordered the documents according to the list the website advertised. I made two peanut butter-jelly-honey-cinnamon sandwiches and grabbed two of all the other snacks I required. Said refreshments perfectly placed in my knapsack, I finally left the house.

Once I arrived in New York, I made my way to the Consulate Services Agency at 1:00 pm, only to be told they were away on a technical break, which was technically lunch. I returned an hour later and sat on one of their black cubicle chairs to wait my turn. Again, I checked my phone’s screen and compared it to my documents. It told me that everything was still in order. When I heard the gentleman before me say “Spasibo”, I got up and walked to the smiling lady sitting across from me. “I’m here to get a tourist visa”, I offered politely, “I hope I have everything”. The pleasant woman took my papers, glancing at the first two for a few seconds. In this space of time, I felt the need to explain, “It was kind of hard getting everything together. I hope I did it right!” The clerk barely looked up from my papers and laughed. “An American tourist visa eez the eeziest to get. So few papers!” I hope I smiled at that.

It seemed everything was in order (as if I weren’t prepared!) so I paid the cashier, was told my passport would be mailed to me in ten days, and left. It was 2:20; in twenty minutes, my passport had been quickly gleaned for information, along with my Invitation Letter and Visa Application, scanned, and a self-taken passport photo glued to my Application, with a glue stick no less. Hours of worrying, images of myself being refused because I had cut my passport photo at an 89° angle instead of a 90° one had plagued me in the week leading up to my actual visa appointment. Comparing my expectations with reality, I chuckled to myself. The Russians didn’t care nearly as much as I had thought they would about letting me in their country. I began to think that US citizens might have exaggerated the difficulty of getting a Russian visa. And once I thought that, the whole thorny world of precautionary travel tales faded away.

On the bus back to Boston, I thought about my day’s experience. The accumula of years and years of travel advice now seemed better suited to people who had never set foot outside their neighborhood. As a somewhat more seasoned traveler, I figured I could start to ignore some of that guidance. And though you are often better safe than sorry, travel is all about turning the unforeseen into a good bar story. So I’ve decided to dismantle the hallowed halls of Trusted Travel Tales that torture your thoughts and twist your perceptions. Throw out the guidebook, forget what your aunt told you, and definitely don’t listen to those who heard from a friend whose mother told them….Just do it. Explore. Get lost, maybe hurt, probably sunburnt, sick, and scared, but most importantly, get out there. You know I am 😉

Why I Never Pack a Guidebook When I Travel

I was writing in my journal when two German girls walked into the dormitory where I was staying in Bangkok. They were speaking in German, naturally, as one girl flipped through a Rough Guides: Thailand tome, most likely reading aloud things to do the next day. Two days later, I found myself climbing temples and taking selfies with them in Ayutthaya, an island-city a couple hours north of Bangkok. But my first thought when I saw her guidebook was, “Why did she bring that with her on a journey round-the-world when she only has so much precious weight and space in her backpack?” I have always been skeptical of the guidebook.

I should mention that I have never read an entire guidebook, so perhaps you shouldn’t completely trust my advice. But I have read many articles within, and I prefer Wikipedia. I concede: Wikipedia is probably not better than a guidebook for discovering the best street food in town, or what hostels have pee-stained beds, but I can find out that information from other sources. If I packed guidebooks, I would only use them to research the basic history of a country/culture, and other relevant information about places I wanted to see. Wikipedia and Google thoroughly and interestingly accomplish that task for me, and all from a lightweight smartphone and/or tablet.

Now I can hear people interjecting, “But what about when the internet isn’t accessible?” Good question. But more often than not, I can save a page for reading offline, and copy necessary details into my pocket-size travel journal. I want to stress that I’m not the techiest of travelers. The only electronics I travel with include a smartphone, iPod, and tablet laptop, and I don’t even use them every day. I like reading books where turning the page involves grabbing grubby paper, sliding a finger beneath, and flipping it over, especially while traveling (I use hostel book exchanges). I have, to my endless frustration, even attempted to travel with a fountain pen.* But for me, the romance of non-tech travel ends with the guidebook.

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Such good drinking advice for Helsinki…have YOU ever been to a bar with a swing?

As much as I grow nostalgic for a dusty room overflowing with books (and one of those cool library ladders that glide along the shelves), I won’t be packing a guidebook anytime soon. In fact, my favorite way to glean information about a travel destination is by talking to other travelers and locals. For instance, over some beers at my hostel in Bangkok, I mentioned I would be in Helsinki for one night, and wondered what to do. A Finnish guy gave me a whole list of bars to go to and shots to try (I didn’t get to them all…). I never would have known about Bar Llamas, a bar with a swing (!), if he hadn’t told me. And I can’t say how many times hostel workers or Couchsurfing hosts have told me places to go, or stories about their city that blew my mind. No Lonely Planet or Rough Guide has the space for all these personal stories, and that is why, ultimately, a person outstrips a guidebook.

A guidebook is so heavily impractical, quickly irrelevant, and contains both too little and too much information. For these reasons, and because I don’t completely trust the opinions of those who write for guidebooks (though they usually do a decent job on this account), I never pack a guidebook when I travel. There is, however, an exception, and a genius one if I do say so myself (which I do, again). Many public libraries offer e-guidebooks with your free membership, which are easy to download and bring with you on your computer or smartphone. And you can pull them up offline for easy access! You might think I’m cheating, but I think it’s practically genius. 🙂

So the next time you sit down to plan your trip pack list, consider ditching the guidebook. It’s just too heavy, and you can find the information you’re seeking from better, cheaper sources (i.e. real people and online). If you’re worried about being unprepared, do some research before you leave, and copy pages of the guidebook that you find particularly useful. You might even be able to have the actual guidebook on your computer or phone on location. As you blaze down the Chao Phraya, wind whisking your hair into a frenzy, you’ll gaze up at the temples, never once thinking, “I wish I had my guidebook…”.

Ayutthaya Figurines

Gotta love figurines!

*Has anyone traveled with a fountain pen? Do disposable ink cartridges leak while traveling? And can you find the correct size cartridges for your pen in every country?

If You Can, Climb It

Travel and tourism are two sides of the same cookie. One just tastes a little less processed.

A few days ago, I was walking through the ruins of Angkor Wat. I was sweating, and stickier than a popsicle. I saw hordes of tourists snapping pictures while also taking in the sites, as a thought occurred to me: “Is Angkor Wat really so different from Disney World?”

Sadly, there are no roller coasters at Angkor Wat. And definitely no air conditioning. But while dripping my way through the masses, I saw an opening and turned. I entered a chamber the size of a childhood bedroom, with few wall carvings. More remarkably, I was the only person there. I stayed in that room, enjoying the chill of being alone amongst many, thinking what the thousands who had existed in that room before me had done, and how they had lived.

I left the room, turned another corner, and saw again the tourists. My thoughts turned as well, to my comparison of Angkor Wat and Disney World. Perhaps the difference lie not in the places as much as in the way they were experienced.

hand climbing thailand

Indiana Jones would be proud

To fully enjoy the temples at Angkor Wat, then, I needed to do a little climbing. Some of you will know that I have a unique desire to climb and explore things that really shouldn’t be. If anyone shares this propensity, I have a bit of advice: go to the temples of Thailand and Cambodia. The guides there actually told me to climb on fallen pieces of the temple as I was looking for a more legitimate exit. And few things have made me happier than channeling my inner Indy to squeeze through broken windows and climb on thousand-year-old temples.

At the end of this long day exploring the temples near Siam Reap, my guide suggested I watch the sunset from the top of a temple on top of a hill. Part way up the hill, an official asked me to cover my shoulders. I didn’t have a scarf, so I had to put on a sweater I had in my backpack. I walked quickly up the hill, sweating more than I thought possible, until I reached the top. Once I did, I had to pee. Doing the pee dance while searching for a restroom, I realized nature’s toilet would have to do. I should note that I was wearing harem pants, those diaper pants that MC Hammer made famous in “Can’t Touch This”. As I attempted to gracefully relieve my bladder, I may have misaimed and ‘spilled’ a bit on these ridiculous pants.

SO, sweaty, pee-stained, and pissy as a teenager, I climbed to the top of the temple, and sat to watch the view. A Chinese man next to me motioned for me to scoot closer. It became apparent that he wanted to take a picture with me. I obliged. After, he looked at me and exclaimed, “Beautiful!” In case you were wondering, I felt- and was -the farthest from beautiful that I could possibly be. But that didn’t stop me from smiling. Quietly cracking up at the hilarity of the situation, I watched the sun set over the temple. From sweaty and grumpy, to cooler and calmer, I reflected on my mercurial moods. All it took was a little climbing to find my peace. That beats a roller coaster any day!

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Sunset at Phnom Bakheng