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

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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.

Great Ocean Road

I spent a lot of time on the highway on this trip to Australia. In a country as diverse and vast as it is, there is no other way to see so much of it. And no better way, I would add.

I arrived in Melbourne freshly off a 14 hour trip from Maui, where I’d already spent a week. I was fully in vacation mode and ready to begin exploring the city before we ventured out of town. But first – coffee. Melbourne has a healthy coffee culture, music to my Seattle heart, and within a few days I was able to settle on a favorite spot. The Petty Officer in Albert Park is a sweet corner cafe with a properly caffeinated long black and entertaining stack of daily newspapers. Do stop in if you are in the area.

Once I had a chance to repack, we were off. The first road adventure took me and my traveling companion, only a year into her ex-pat status and 4 months pregnant to boot, up the winding Great Ocean Road. Beginning in Bells Beach, a breathtakingly deserted stretch of oceanside, we watched surfers glide in and out of the break with a howling wind at their backs.

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Onward through charming seaside towns to Lorne, where we watched perhaps the most perfect late summer sunset drift off as the moon rose over the calm waters of the small bay.

And then to the dramatic Twelve Apostles on a stormy day where the sunlight slashed through the dark clouds at unexpected moments, lighting up pillars of limestone in a way I wouldn’t believe was real except that I was there to see it.

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We threw in a few lighthouses to round out the trip, and unexpectedly stumbled on a koala teasing a small roadside crowd with his slow blinks and a mouthful of eucalyptus.

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We managed to the highway on a shoulder season, with little traffic and many room vacancies, but still warm days and nights. It was a part of Australia I never knew I needed to see until I saw it, in person, through the passenger-side window.

Starlight in Cape Town

My first night in Cape Town, I could not sleep. I had spent over 36 hours in transit, between Seattle, Dubai and this new city at the bottom of the world. My internal clock was all wrong, and I was dead tired and desperately willing myself to sleep. I woke up at roughly 4 am local time and saw for the first time a skylight in the room I shared with my best friend and travel partner, Joan. She was soundly sleeping. I was counting the stars I could see through the skylight, and I watched as the light in the window turned from black, to pewter to rose to light blue. And I still could not sleep. My mind was racing through all that happened in the past two days. A brutal flight in coach to a hot city in the middle east; a view from the top of the tallest building in the world; dinner (minus cocktails) with veiled women and robed men; a picturesque landing on my sixth continent; and a white-knuckled ride on a South African freeway past townships and into the city of my dream. It was enough to make my head spin. It still does.

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Cape Town from Table Mountain

How I ended up in Cape Town is both a mystery and obvious. In basic terms, I spent a few weeks planning, gave a paycheck to Expedia and then got on a plane. Mysteriously, I didn’t ever mean to travel to South Africa, at least not now. But I had a dream and in that dream I saw what I believed to be South Africa, near Cape Town. I still believe that. And then I called Joan, my college friend and frequent travel partner, and asked her to think about a trip to southern tip of Africa – we’ll see animals and oceans, I said. She said she was supposed to be paying off student loans this year….but, sure, why not! This is why I love her and also why we travel so well together.

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Giraffe’s on the airstrip at Arathusa

We planned and discussed and planned some more, and then we got on the plane to the city that I never knew I wanted to see but that I cannot imagine not knowing. We did see oceans and animals, and sheer cliffs for roadways, and warthogs on runways, and ostriches sunning themselves on blustery beaches at the south-westernmost point of the African continent. We saw it all, and we saw nothing – only a glimmer of the mirage that is one of the most profound places on our planet. Like a view through a skylight, what I could see was only one window into a vast space, but it was still magnificent.

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Sun down in South Africa

Mexico Revisted

Note: I wrote this post before my trip to Mexico, but never got around to posting. The trip was different than I imagined, as trips generally are. But I thought it was worth posting anyway, and once I have my arms around exactly what did happen there, I will write to that as well.

Trips to Mexico punctuated my childhood with relative frequency. I don’t remember much from my first visit, but I know I was in Mazatlan. And the small terra cotta plate I painted in that part of a resort where they send children to be entertained hangs in my hallway, a colorful memento of my first steps in that first of foreign countries.

I spent other holidays there – spring breaks in the Yucatan, Christmas (and a quinceañera) in Guadalajara, a visit to Mexico City. I never knew to be afraid when I traveled, not the way we do now with State Department alerts and CDC websites. Back then it was about how many stuffed animals I could bring, or what kind of tan I’d have to show off when I returned.

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A street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

As bona-fide Mexican-American, I found Mexico as foreign as any other far-off place on the map. I didn’t feel home in any sense of the word, but after two or three trips I felt comfortable. I knew what to expect in the city and what to expect in the small towns (2 pesos for toilet paper at the town square restroom).

But more recently, Mexico has receded from the list of next adventures I always refer to. The trouble there with drugs and violence makes me profoundly sad for the proud, hard-working people who must live among those demons. That their once idyllic towns and villages have become freeways for smugglers  (headed primarily toward the United States), makes me angry that I am powerless to help in any important way. What appears to be the “safest” way to visit is now my least favorite way to see this country – through the gated entries of all-inclusive resorts, where no one has to leave the comfort of a swim-up bar. I cannot visit Mexico in this way. It violates every instinct I have about how to get to know a country – through their home-cooked food, their festivals, houses of worship and music.

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Colorful homes in Mexico

And so of course, feeling as passionate about the tourist-ready version of Mexico I don’t care to see, I’ll be taking a cruise on the Mexican Riviera to Puerto Vallarta at Christmas. I didn’t mean to join the cruising crowd, but it is a gift from my parents for me and my sister – and I’m never one to turn down a trip of any kind. So I’ll cruise to Mexico. I’ll have the comfort of a swim-up bar, and a twice daily cleaned room and as much toilet paper as I’ll ever need. But the two days we spend docked in PV will be my relief. My family, who share the same instinct for culture, will find our way away from the dock, beyond the Senior Frogs and caricature-like mariachi bands. We’ll use my mom’s fluent Spanish to quiz cab drivers on where they eat breakfast, ask women on the street where we can find a Mass on Christmas day, and follow the local crowd to the best and busiest market in town.

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Seeing Puerto Vallarta from the deck of MS Zaandam

I’m sure we will appreciate the pool and air conditioning and unquestionably clean food when we return to the cruise ship. But we’ll know that we’ve seen more of Mexico than most of the people on that boat. Because we care enough about the country and the people to actually see them, for what they are, what they have been and what they will always be.

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Serenade during lunch

Finding Rhythm in El Colorado

I am not very good at sports. Honestly, I was generally chosen last or very close to last on any team. There are a long string of coaches from elementary to high school who knew I only showed up at my chosen sport practice to chat with my friends. My mom’s best memory of my short-lived pee wee soccer career was watching me pick daisies in the backfield while the game went on around me.

But I love to ski. For some odd reason, my mother would bundle me up in all manner of puffy clothes and lug our skis, both annual ski swap purchases, across icy parking lots to spend what was likely a hefty amount of cash on a day of skiing. I’m guessing she liked the sport a little, too, although the first few years of my downhill education she spent hunched over as I teetered between her legs, hanging over her ski poles. No way was that fun for her – but it was an outrageous time for me!

As I got older, I got better and eventually started skiing faster and steeper stuff, all the while demanding better equipment. And money for lift tickets and lunch. She complied. I skied. I loved the speed and the near-death experience you can have while facing down a tree or leaning just a little too far back on your heels. I loved the icy air, and hidden trails between runs, and the rhythm of turns to get lost in.

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View of the imposing Andes from Santiago, Chile.

It was inevitable that when we went to Chile one summer in June that I would insist on a trip to a ski slope. It was winter there, after all, and the Andes shoot straight up behind Santiago. I could practically smell the snow from the city streets. We found a small tourist shop that rented skis and sold reservations for a bus up the mountain. I remember arriving at some early hour to pick up our equipment with a few ex-pats and tourists, and off we went. Straight up the mountain, on roads covered in snow and ice, in a bus with bald tires. There was only room for one car on the narrow road, so the morning route meant everybody was going up, and in the evening everybody went down. Like suicide lanes on city streets, only deadlier. I remember sliding backward for the umpteenth time when our bus had to stop abruptly while a plow pulled out the car in front of us, and realized someone had forgot to put guardrails on this particular switchback. Actually, all the switchbacks.

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Lunch break at the ski lodge, atop the Andes mountains.

We finally made it to the top, thanked  the many saints and angels on duty, and went about spending a fine day skiing the Andes mountains. El Colorado was the resort where we skied and it could not have been a more perfect day. Blue skies, fresh powder and view from the top of the world. I could not believe my luck! I may or may not have accidentally fallen off the side of the lodge deck while peering down into the city far below, but aside from that slight misadventure, I thoroughly enjoyed my first ski trip on the South American continent.

I still ski, and will continue as long as my legs hold me up. It’s probably the most expensive hobby one can enjoy, and every few years they change all the rules for equipment. But for me, it’s still about the speed, the sound, the rhythm and the icy, open air.