Outrunning a Hurricane

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Colonial San Jose, Costa Rica

Jimmy was the driver that drove us through a hurricane in Costa Rica.

My family and I departed for Costa Rica blissfully unaware that hurricane Otto had pointed itself directly into the path of our intended destination. The US media was focused on a certain President-elect so nothing else made headlines for weeks. The fact that Central America had already felt the punch of this storm was realized only just before we left Atlanta for the last leg of our journey to San Jose. A change of plans at that stage seemed ill advised, so onto the plane we marched.

Our arrival into the capital city was all that good travel ought to be: one part chaos, one part humidity, one part joy. Our late night entry meant we were late to dinner, and badly needing a drink – quickly obtained at the only restaurant open within a reasonable walk from or hotel. Restaurant Chelles was the kind of place you might only find when it is the only place open. During regular hours that same street would be bustling and peppered with many seemingly better spots for dinning. But at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday after 12 hours of travel, it was perfect. And charming in its eccentricity, with crooked shelves and doorways, an ancient wooden bar and oddball clientele – four weary Americans included. But the food was hearty and the service from the lone waitress brought frequent laughs. Her eyes sparkled as she practiced her English while we stumbled through our halting Spanish to order. She was the kind of woman who was as welcoming to late night tourists as she was to homeless wanderers seeking rest and a glass of water.

We spent our first and only full day in San Jose wandering streets with no real objective in mind but to experience a new city. We managed to find excellent local markets and coffee shops before a quick trip through the stunning Museo del Oro. When we emerged from the subterranean museum, the first few bands of Otto had begun to reach the mainland. Costa Rica doesn’t regularly fall into the hurricane track, and almost never in late November. Even locals seemed unsure of what the storm might bring. But we were assured the large mountain range that divided the country would probably subdue the worst of it. It was scheduled to make landfall the next day, the day we were to drive across that mountain range to a beachside retreat for a family wedding.

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A hidden entrance to a beachside bar in Tamarindo.

Jimmy met us promptly at 8 a.m. as our now party of six packed into the van. The rain was still not heavy and as we raced out of town, it seemed less likely to be a problem on this journey. We took a brief break for lunch at a crossroads, which also doubled as a wild parrot hangout. Seeing birds so exotic to our sensibilities flying around like the owned the place was a rare treat.

The rain seemed to get heavier as we neared the mountain ranges, then all but disappeared as we turned toward the coast. By the time Jimmy delivered us to Tamarindo, we were pulling out sunglasses and hats as the sun beat down.

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Sunset on the beach, after the hurricane.

As it turns out, you can outrun a hurricane, if you have some nerve and a willing driver. At least for a time. By late evening, when we were safely locked away in our condo, the rain began in earnest. The already muddy roads turned to rivers as the sheets of water pummeled the roof and patios around us. Strangely, there was very little wind. Or less than you expect when a category 2 hurricane passes overhead. Parts of Costa Rica were hit very hard by the storm, but in our little beach town we awoke to someone carefully sweeping the patio and watering the plants, like any other Friday. And so, after the hurricane, we headed straight to the beach.

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Of Cities and Fields

I grew up in the country and I love the quiet, the peace and the wide open spaces. But cities still thrill me with their unexpected surprises around every turn, the hum of humanity with a shared sense of purpose (to the trains! Waiting for dinner! Standing at the bus stop!). I don’t think I could ever chose between the two, nor could I deem one better than the other. I think both are necessary, not only for a progressive civilization, but for diversity of experiences and understanding.

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Rural Kittitas county

It’s a common theme to set up this false dilemma between city and country life. It doesn’t need to be a choice, nor should we argue that one surpasses the other because of some more worthy frame of reference one can build in either location. The toughness of a do-it-yourself rural citizen is equal to the gritty determination of a city-born hourly wage earner. But it is true that a city is lost without the fields of agriculture the rural life provides; and a remote region requires the technology of cities for communication and connection to the rest of the world. Neither can exist, and provide their citizens with the rich experiences of the world, without the other.

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Downtown, San Francisco

When I daydream about the places I want to see in the world, fully half are cities and the other half are remote open spaces. Madrid and the Atacama desert. Paris and the Okavango delta. Hong Kong and Tasmania. They both draw me in, for reasons beyond my own understanding. Maybe it’s because my soul is never truly content in one setting, and must always be searching for a new one. Or maybe just the idea of greener pastures elsewhere.

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Outback, Australia

No matter the reason, I’ll continue my travels to both cities and fields; metropolises teeming with life and plains with nothing on the horizon but hills; urban sprawls and rural back roads. Together, they knit together a life filled with wonder and wandering.

The fairytale of Brugge

I left Amsterdam after a few days feeling a little low because somehow I perceived myself as somewhat invisible in that large and vibrant city, not really engaging with other people and generally trying to stay out of the way. As a first-time solo traveler, I wasn’t sure what to expect and hadn’t really prepared myself for pushing away my default introversion. It made for a somewhat depressing last night.

By the time I reached the train station I was ready to get out of the city and see something new, whatever that might be. Three trains later and a trip through both the Dutch and Belgian countryside (so many horses!), I arrived in Brugge.

Amsterdam Brugge-65Brugge is one of those towns you will Google incessantly and check the feed on Instagram 500 times before you arrive there. You will do these things and you will still not believe that the town really exists. I felt I knew what kind of “quaint” city it would be, but nothing prepared me for the short taxi ride from the train station to my Airbnb. It was like being dropped in the middle of a childhood storybook. There were moats and draw bridges and swans paddling away. And this was just the first five minutes! By the time I arrived at my room, I was grinning from ear to ear – though at most I had seen only a few side streets off the main roads.

I quickly dumped my luggage and spent the next 48 hours walking nearly every street, finding every unusual roofline and climbing the highest towers. I was living inside a fairytale.

As with every picturesque medieval town in Europe, there tends to be quite a bit of tourism and the usual commerce that goes with it. Brugge is no exception, as I learned when I  stumbled onto the street housing an H&M, a Starbucks and a McDonald’s (albeit in genuinely charming buildings). If a traveler finds themselves in a similar situation, surrounded by the more commercial aspects of tourism that don’t appeal, my best advice is to GET OFF THAT STREET.

Amsterdam Brugge-63The beauty of Brugge is that while Markt Square is truly spectacular and worth passing through, or even stopping for food or drinks, it is only one part of a truly photogenic town. Around every curve of a canal or corner of a stone building was a hidden gem, a shop, a restaurant or a public park with virtually nobody around (possibly because even in April, the weather was a balmy 60 degrees). Even the popular center-of-town attraction, the Belfry of Brugge, was relatively deserted in the early morning – which made climbing all 366 steps slightly less of a challenge without having to avoid both people and navigate the extremely narrow stairwell (not built for anyone wearing a backpack or taller than 5’6). And yes, the views are worth the climb.

Amsterdam Brugge-75As I spent the next days exploring the town, finding hidden bars recommended by friends, and generally soaking up the European village atmosphere (did I mention this was my first trip to mainland Europe?), I was utterly relaxed and better able to engage with the town in a way I wasn’t able to in Amsterdam. Though I am a fan of foreign cities of all types, as a solo traveler I found myself much more settled and open in this small village.

At home in any city

The mystery of travel is that at some point on the journey, when I can pause long enough to breathe in the air of a place, I will feel at home – even for a brief moment. When I was walking along Cape Town streets, heading toward dinner on a now-familiar block, I felt it. When I spent an entire summer in Chile and knew how to order only one thing in Spanish from my favorite lunch spot, I felt it. And when I was standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam, telling the Italian tourists how to pay the fare when the train came along, I also felt it.

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Street life in Amsterdam

I think one of the tricks, or maybe results, of a lifetime of world travel is the ability to quickly become familiar with a new place. Part of this trick involves careful studying of maps before any departure – easy for me since I’ve always been fascinated by maps of foreign places. But it also involves a willingness to be uncomfortably lost long enough to become comfortably lost. Because then I’m not lost at all, only wandering streets at will until I decide to return to where I first began.

Every city has a different beat, an unseen pattern to its own madness. Sometimes that beat changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the chorus stays the same. Finding out what drives that beat means getting to know a city in an intimate way, through the less-trafficked streets, the small shops and street vendors; even the largest art museums and popular cultural attractions add to the rhythm. They are all things a city can be proud of, and the people tend to reflect that pride.

Being “at home” doesn’t mean I feel like a local, or even pretend that my American clothes and accent don’t stand out immediately to everyone. I realize I look every part the tourist most places I go, with my giant backpack and camera clicking away. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also feel a sense of familiarity and comfort in a new place, even if it’s only the few blocks around my hotel. It’s looking for the familiar in unfamiliar places that keeps me traveling.

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Steel, concrete and nature align in New York City

Winter in Vashon

I have a love-hate relationship with Washington’s Puget Sound region. On the one hand (let’s say, summer) it’s absolutely beautiful. I can say with confidence that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. There are few major metropolitan cities that sit alongside island-dotted waterways with a backdrop of snow-capped mountain ranges and a variety of volcanoes. On the other hand (let’s say, winter) the gray skies and buckets of rain make me want to run away to to the the middle latitudes every other minute. Seriously.

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The Olympic mountains tower over the water and provide a perfect sunset silhouette.

But even in the winter, there are always a few stretches of days with perfectly clear skies, bright sun and sparkling water. It’s on these kinds of days that I load up my camera gear and lunch and head out to explore the region. This winter I headed to the ferry terminal to checkout one of our region’s most noted attractions: The San Juan Islands. Specifically, Vashon Island.

Vashon is a large island in the southern end of Puget Sound, squarely between Tacoma and Seattle and a short 20 minute ferry ride from either. Washington state ferries are also something of a treasure. I’d hate to have to ride one daily as a commuter, but for the weekend adventurer they are the pause before the rush. A 20 minute or 1 hour road-side stopover where you have the best view of the city, the mountains, Mt. Rainier (our friendly local volcano) and the water. If you’re really lucky, some dolphins or even Orca whales will join you. And you don’t even have to get out of the car if you don’t want to. But if you do, the outdoor decks provide a refreshing (if frigid) blast of ocean air as you pass other ferries, freighters and pleasure cruisers as they crisscross the Sound.

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Ferries criss-cross each other’s paths in the waters of the Puget Sound.

I had no real goal for the day except to wind my way across the island by getting lost as much as possible. One can only get so lost on an island – eventually you end up where you started. The short winter days also meant I had a limited amount of daylight to enjoy the island.

Getting lost was the perfect antidote to an all-too-hectic year, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon one of the most picturesque lighthouses on the most crystal clear of days. The Point Robinson lighthouse serves as a beacon on the easternmost point of the island, facing the urban density of the Seattle/Tacoma corridor that’s maybe five miles away as the crow flies. That five miles may as well be 1,000 as the pace of life on little Vashon is a respite of scenic calm that thankfully only takes 20 minutes and one ferry to find.

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Point Robinson lighthouse, Vashon Island, Washington.

 

Chasing the Southern Cross

When you grow up in one corner of the world, you take the sky for granted. You know where the sun will rise and set and what stars you will see above you. Always up there, sometimes shifting, but never far from where you expect them to be.

I first saw the stars of the Southern Cross on a dark night in Santiago, Chile. For those in the northern hemisphere, the big dipper is generally the most recognizable constellation – at least the one they teach to elementary school children that they never forget. But south of the equator, the Southern Cross blinks to the stargazer that they are now looking at a completely different bit of space than they ever have before. Imagine that – a brand new corner of the universe to peer into!

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The Southern Cross constellation

My first trip south of the equator was as a teenager to Chile, in South America. It was with great fascination that I found the four stars marking the perfect shape of a cross, and looked for it every night after. I saw it again a year later in Australia, as we rode across the Snowy Mountains on horseback in Kosciuszko National Park.

I still love to see the Southern cross on my travels. It’s a silent signal that though I am very far from home I still have some kind stars watching over me. In South Africa, the Cross waved a greeting across the bushveld as I looked out into the sunset across a watering hole filled with hippos. Last spring, in Hawaii, I was told the cross was visible in the very early mornings on the southern horizon. As it turns out, waking up very early on vacation in Hawaii is just not a thing. Until the morning I left. My 5 a.m. flight took off, banked around and out the window of my airplane were those four stars, blinking hello.

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Australia’s flag features the constellation

I was far too distracted on the next leg of my trip to Melbourne to look skyward much, and I wasn’t confident in my star-identifying ability – the Cross was quite on its side down here, if that is what I was seeing after all. But on the night I was driven across a hot red desert in central Australia, I laid my head down for a brief nap on the armrest and out the window were those same four winking stars. They followed me all the way home.

The Red Center of Australia

The next leg of my Australian road trip I was on my own. I was going north, far north to Alice Springs and the heat would not be a pleasant experience for an expectant mum. Three hours flying over nothing, and I mean nothing, except red desert to land in the sleepy tourist town of Alice Springs that seemed to exist mostly as an entry and exit point to the middle of nowhere. But the ground was a beautiful shade of red, and I do love deserts, so I was perfectly pleased.

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Uluru on approach

 

At 6 a.m. the next morning, I was hustled into a tour bus and sent on down the highway while I watched five hours of pavement pass underneath us. It was a long ride, but the destination was a rock formation elsewhere in that red nothingness. Uluru. A rock I had to see, because…it was there. The “nothingness” was, of course, a whole lot of something to those who traveled that way for thousands of years, long before I was ever a twinkle in the stars. Uluru is massive monolith that is so much more dramatic up close than photos could ever show. There are rock slides and gashes and canyons and deep open caves, some so sacred to ancestors of that land that photographs are not allowed.

And then there were the stories – the creations stories from the Anangu. Dramatic tales of battles, family tragedies and wildlife that account for every mark on that rock. I could have spent a week photographing and exploring it all, but I only had a few hours. Just enough time to appease my curiosity and more than justify the three days of travel to reach it. I watched the sun set on that rock, champagne in hand (who am I to refuse?), purchased aboriginal art that retold the most memorable story of Uluru and packed myself back onto the bus. Finally, another five hours drive through inky black nothingness that hid a world of somethingness that I hope, one day, to discover.

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The artist graciously allowed me to photograph her with the artwork I purchased.