"The world is a book, those who do not travel read only one page." -- Saint Augustine

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

During Travel Post #3

“San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”
“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.
“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment—it’s the same
land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”
-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods

So.  I found out what my problem with Ireland is.

I'm on the wrong side of the island.

Now, don't get me wrong. Dublin is a perfectly lovely place, once you get used to it. You do have to make the effort, but you can find history hiding in places -- or pubs, of course, all of them proclaiming that some famous writer or other once drank there. But it's like going to New Orleans and going, "Okay. Seen the Gulf Coast!"
Today, I went to the famous Cliffs of Moher. I took a tour that I'd selected specially because it included a hike up a Burren mountain.

Now, let me pause to say that I? Am not a nature girl. I do not take to camping, walking, or generally being outdoors very well. But I thought, What the hell? It says 'gentle mountain hike'. It'll be a charming little stone-lined path up the mountain.

GUYS, I CLIMBED A BLOODY MOUNTAIN. And I mean, climbed up, stepped over stones and through windy, well-trodden paths the width of your foot, with a hiking pole to support myself up and everything. I was red-faced and out of breath every time we stopped.

But I made it all the way up to the top.

The Burren is a part of Ireland that once was under water; then when the Ice Age came, the glaciers pushed all the soil off the land, leaving exposed limestone mountains. You can't grow anything in the soil because it's very thin and the limestone doesn't allow water to stay in the ground, but grass grows well there; so it's the picturesque farm country you see in postcards. As I was climbing over these massive limestone rocks, all I could think about was how the ancients thought rocks and fossils were the remains of giants and dragons.

I was walking through a graveyard, a gorgeous, blossoming necropolis.

At the very top there was a tree with bits of paper and string tied around it -- there was a legend concerning that type of tree (ash, I think) that if you tied something of yours around the tree you left the problem behind for the faeries to take care of.

Paper is biodegradable, so I don't feel too guilty for littering.

After the hike (HIKE PEOPLE, HIKE), we had tea and cake, then went to the Cliffs of Moher. The weather was, apparently, perfect -- sun-shine and little wind. The guide kept remarking how gorgeous the weather was and how lucky we were.

Now, the Cliffs? Breathtaking. Sheer rock faces that fall straight down into the sea, the water breaking over boulders and sea life just off the coast. Little white caps kept breaking out in the (blue, blue, deeply gorgeous sapphire blue) water, like dolphins surfacing. Or Selkies.

After that, we drove around the coast and into Galway. Which, actually, is in the general area where my great-great grandmother came from, way, way back in the day, so it had a bit of an extra-special meaning to me. We walked through the main street of Galway and then back again to meet our bus back to Dublin.

Today? That's the sort of day I was expecting in Ireland. If you're heading this way, the tour I took is MacCoole's Tours; you meet up early with Caroline in front of the TI on Suffolk Street, and she walks you to your bus and gives you a lovely little walking tour of Dublin and explains about where you'll be going. John is her cousin, who gives the hiking tour. They're both rather brilliant, too -- she's got a history degree and actually teaches in Dublin, and he's got an archaeology degree. And they feed you cake. Did I mention that? You can get cake or pie at the end of the hike. Hey, you climbed a freakin' mountain.  You've earned it.

It's well past one AM over here by now, but I had to get out and tell you even just a little bit about how magical my day was today. Tomorrow is my last full day -- shopping, anyone?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

During Travel Post #2

NOTE #1: This post was written on August 20th; typed up and posted today, the 21st.

"Did you find adventure?" Dinadin asked.
"No," the man said grimly. "Nor does anyone else. Adventure is something that happens to someone else. When it's happening to you, it's only trouble."
|You found something better than adventure," Palomides said gravely. "You found wisdom."
-- Gerald Morris; The Tale of Sir Dinadan

Ever built up an event or a holiday in your head? You had the whole thing planned out up there, didn't you? What route you'll take, or who will sit next to who at Thanksgiving dinner. You're imagining the conversations, probably. And it's amazing while it's up there, isn't it? Just perfect.

And then the day comes and -- well, you miss your exit. Your Uncle Rusty and Aunt Francine had a fight in the car on the way over, and their sniping spills over into the meal.

It's not ruined, per se. More like marred.

That's been Dublin for me so far.

Granted, I've only been here for...  about five hours so far, but it's been...

Well, let me try to explain.
If we were personifying cities: Bath would be the stately grandmother, proud of her history and eager to share her stories. London would be the middle-to-upper class older businessman, suit and hat and umbrella, confident and experienced and just a touch arrogant.  Cardiff would be the just out of university twenty-something, with a head full of knowledge that they can't wait to show off, young and confident while old in the same breath.

Dublin's the teenager who could care less about the museum, they just want to hit the gift shop.

Maybe it's because getting in was taxing -- travel tends to be, and missed stops and delayed planes make it worse -- but it's almost like Dublin's fighting its own history. This is the land of Wilde, of Joyce, of Swift, the proverbial literary land of milk and honey. All I see are shops and pubs.

There is an old joke about not being able to walk a block in Dublin without passing a pub. The answer, of course, is to go into every one. Then you haven't passed it.

Of course, my locale is vastly different here than it was in my other stops. London's digs were Te-Tiny (capitals needed)) but remote enough to be almost charming. Bath was a stately B&B. Cardiff was a renovated old house by the river. Here I'm in the Temple Bar district, the city's high street. I'm sure that if I had been in Picadilly or right off the Plass I'd have different opinions.

(I don't think Bath can get down the way the Romans used to do it.)

I think, maybe, it was the build-up. I'm Irish way back, and Eire is the homeland. I expected it to be home so much that when it wasn't, I got disappointed. And, maybe, just a touch homesick.

Tomorrow will be better. Rest and sleep will do wonders.

NOTE #2: As I wrote this, I sat in the Merchant's Arch Bar and Restaurant, eating a delicious Irish lamb stew, drinking a red lemonade and vodka, and listening to a live musician sing classic Irish songs as well as some modern covers. He did "Walkin' in Memphis" and honestly, it was just what I needed to hear.

During Travel Post #1

NOTE: This post was written on Aug 19th, and typed up and posted today, Aug 21st.

“He who would travel happily must travel light.” 
-– Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry

I realize that I am not the stereotypical backpacker. That when people look at me they expect two pieces of rolling luggage to be trailing behind. And, in general, that's true. Backpackers here are younger, college kids or look like they might have a kukari tucked away in their bag. I'm...  somewhere in between. A middle-class traveller staying in cheap accommodations to stretch every dollar.

It's bizarre, actually. How normal this all feels. I could do this forever. And it's unbelievable because I know when I get home, I won't be able to put it into words. How at peace I feel. How hilarious it is to see the locals, especially in Lacock, who were almost amused at how charming we found the little hamlet when they were obviously as bored as I am at home. How it feels to be a stranger in a strange land, but not be scared in the slightest. How as I expected, I did miss some people, but it's more a fond remembrance than a longing, a pining (and yes, there is a difference) while, at the same time and for no fault of their own, I don't miss others. How all our misconceptions are wrong -- the only downright rude people I've met over here have been foreign, the food's amazing (and all fried), that it's possible to have efficient, clean public transportation (US, take note.)

How I'm finding a little more of myself each day. I'm finding inner and outer strength, that getting lost is just fine.

I'm writing this on the train to Cardiff, going down into the Welsh countryside, my ears popping. I love train travel. I get to sit back and watch the world fly by. This will sound corny, but it makes me feel like an adventurer. It reminds me of railroad men and the Wild West, the bravery and excitement and the unknown.

In the tunnel under the Bristol Channel, Wales and the future on the other side... And the light approaches...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Road Goes Ever On And On...

"I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted."
--  Jack Kerouac; The Dharma Bums


Tomorrow I take off. Less than 24 hours.  But before I go, I thought I'd let you all in on a bit of personal introspection.  Some aspect of blogging -- blogging like this, that is -- is more personal and diary-like anyway.  And this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime, could possibly change everything type of trips that you build up and put up on a pedestal. Honestly, I'd like to see if it is one of those life-changing trips.  So what better way to do that than to record who I was before my trip, and compare it to who I'll be in half a month.

I leave for this trip... Well.  I leave homeless, isolated physically from dear friends, and with a broken heart.  I leave inches, centimeters, from completely falling apart, and not caring if I even bother to put myself together again.  I leave physically, spiritually, emotionally drained. It's less painful to be empty.

That's what I leave as. Empty.

Tablua rasa, from the Latin. Blank slate. The philosophical ideal that we're all born a blank slate, an unscribed tablet, everyone equal.  Nurture over nature.

I hope and pray to powers I doubt even exist anymore that something good comes from this. I'm terrified that it won't the big dream that I'm making this out to be. I'm terrified that it will, and that I'll come home and be stuck.  I think I'd die if I got a taste of what could be but couldn't have.

So. I leave terrified, and empty, and broken, wanting things I don't have, don't know if I can have, or if I should even want them.

I leave with my Entire Life hooked over my shoulders. I could conceivably drop off the face of the planet as long as I have what I've got packed. Do you know how humbling it is to know that you have every belonging of importance packed away for easy transport?

Do you know how... freeing it is? Knowing you could just go on and on, 'down from the door where it begins'? Knowing that maybe, just maybe, you'll be brave enough to do that one day?

So this is me. Terrified, yes. Empty, yes. Broken, of course. That is default human condition.

But grateful. Grateful for the chance, the opportunity. Grateful for those who inspired me, who taught me how to be brave. Even if you don't know it.

I'm shutting everything off for the night.  At the latest, you'll all hear from me on the 31st, when I get back home.

If I decide to get back on the plane.

The road goes ever on and on.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Once is a Coincidence, Twice is a Pattern

"I've only got teabags, I'm afraid - but I daresay you've had enough of tea leaves?"
-- Remus Lupin; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

So Monday, with one more week to go, I came across a five pence coin in an innocuous roll of dimes while I was at work.  It was a sign. Even my job wants me to go on my vacation!

I have a very interesting relationship with superstitions.  For example, I don't believe that walking under a ladder or crossing a black cat is bad luck -- I do, however, throw salt over my shoulder, and knock on wood to ward off a jinx. I don't believe in ghosts, but if a friend of mine tells me they've seen one, I believe them.  I love collecting the little tidbits of cultural information into my mental filing cabinet, but I rarely use or believe any of them.

In short, like mythology, I love superstitions. Even if I think some of them are hilariously silly.

Everyone follows a few at times, even if we're just keeping with tradition. The old adage "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" is said at least once at every single wedding in the Western world, lucky penny or silver sixpence in the shoe optional. Some ball players (and rabid fans) have to wear the exact same clothes -- underwear included -- or do certain things in the locker rooms and stands at every game in order to ensure a win.

Lots of airlines do not have row 13 on their flight.  The rows go from 12 to 14. I always want to make a scene about 13 being gone -- either throw a fit about 13 being my lucky number or demanding that someone send out a search party for the missing row. IT COULD BE LOST AND ALL ALONE AND SCARED AND CRYING FOR ITS MOMMY.  You see the same thing in high rise hotels. I can understand such a superstition in, say, Las Vegas, where Lady Luck is a fickle mistress, but to me, the whole thing is just silly. But the 13 superstition is strong in the padawans, so the bottom line is this: People think that 13 is unlucky (why is still a mystery lost to history, but most blame the Vikings or the Christians for triskaidekaphobia). Customers will not buy airline tickets or rent hotel rooms on those rows/floors, so the company has lost money. Making a silly acquiescence to keep the revenue up is a small price to pay.

I did not know this until I started looking into this post, but it's supposed to be bad luck to start a trip on Friday. Maybe that explains my trouble getting to California three weeks ago? Do curses work if you don't know about them?

Some people think this harkens back to the Vikings and Christians again. Thanks, guys!  Friday was supposed to have been Frigg's day -- Frigg, the wife of Odin (or Woden), got her own day too. (Wednesday was Woden's day, if you didn't know) When Christianity swept through the world, Frigg became a devil and, like Halloween, Friday became bad luck. Unless you work weekdays. Then Friday's a godsend come quitting time.

But when does a tradition become a superstition, or conversely when does a superstition become a tradition?  It's a fine line.

For example, my mother always changes the beds in the entire house before she goes on a trip. She says it's because she likes coming home and sleeping on clean sheets, but it's become a sort of travel tradition in my family. I know it's something I do, clean up a bit before going on a trip because it's nice coming home to a nice, clean room.  From what I've read, some people have to clean. Others have to have a certain piece of jewelry on, or have a lucky penny in their pocket.

Personally, I think it's a bit of a Jedi mind-trick we give ourselves, like -- well, like wearing racy knickers: You feel sexy, so you act sexy. When you have on a lucky necklace, or lucky earrings, or have a lucky coin on you, you feel lucky and confident and like nothing can strike you down.  If you don't have that special talisman and are keenly aware of it, every little bump is a terrible blow. 

Does anyone else have any travel superstitions or lucky charms they travel with? Come on, confess your deepest neurosises to the class, children!

And yes, I'm going to be leaving Monday with my lucky 5p. We'll be fine.

Monday, August 1, 2011

With Two Weeks To Go...

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
-- Mark Twain

When people find out you're traveling, they want to know all about it.  As I've been planning my trip, when I tell someone that I'm going alone, they have varying reactions.  The most common reaction I've gotten is some combination of staring and worrying for my safety.

"Are you crazy?!"

Well, short answer? Yes. But not the kind of crazy that you're thinking.

Every time I've had to fly, I've gone alone.  I've usually had someone waiting for me at the terminal -- I flew to Wisconsion and Seattle to visit an ex a few times, I had friends meeting me in San Diego and Riverside, while I didn't have anyone at the airport for me in Vegas last June I met up with people later, and when I went to Washington DC in high school, I had a group meeting me at the airport.  And yes, there actually is safety in numbers -- it's not a cliche if it's true.

However, the nice thing about this whole info-tech age we're living in?  I'll be connected.  I'm bringing my Kindle-turned-Hitchkhiker's Guide that accesses email and wikipedia and social media, and Starbucks are all international and offer free wifi.  My new phone is a 3G smartphone, so I'll be able to be contacted (even though I know the roaming fees would kill me).  I picked out places to stay in that are highly recommended, and most have security on-site (the little B&B I'm staying at in Bath has no security, but the owners live on-site).  My family has traveled extensively and despite what they think, I actually do listen to them from time to time and have picked up tips here and there on what to do, how to behave, where to stay and when to listen to that little voice in your head when it says not to go down that dark side street.

I'm going to London, not to Giza.  Sure, there's a chance that something could happen; there's a chance something could happen to me while I'm here in my hometown, or when I'm in New Orleans for a weekend.

I'm not stupid.  Not completely, at any rate.

View of Balboa Park from the Skyfari in the San Diego Zoo, June 2009

Another reaction I get a lot is "Oh, you won't have as much fun if you go alone."

Allow me to respond with a resounding bullshit.

Would I like to go with a travel buddy?  You bet.  I'd love to be able to wander through the British Museum with my parents and grandmother and aunts and uncles; have a pint at a pub with my brother and cousins; go see Much Ado with my geeky, theater-going friends (you know who you are!); share a breathtaking, panoramic sunset view on the London Eye with a partner.  But the timing, the cost, the lack of travel partner able to afford or get the time to go...  It doesn't work out like that.

I know there will be moments when I see something and say, "Oh, I wish [insert name here] could see this!"  I think that's part of traveling, of going away.  Absence and the heart and all that.

The thing about going somewhere with someone else is both a pro and a con.  It's a pro because no two people are exactly alike, they don't have the same likes and dislikes, you do things you wouldn't think to do.  One of my favorite day excursions I've ever taken was when I went to the aforementioned wedding in June, and it came up completely at random; I'm on my way to the airport, a family friend said to me, "Oh, you should try to get out of the city and go to Hoover Dam if you have the time."  The idea hadn't even crossed my mind, honestly.  I ended up renting a car and driving down to the Dam, then around Lake Mead for the day.

Yes, I didn't do the whole Vegas strip thing -- In fact, the only time I went down the main drag was when three of my fellow bridesmaids and one of the groomsmen went to the Charthouse for dinner the day after the wedding.  Quite a few people have scoffed at hearing that.

I like to think that I found more of myself out in the sand and heat and desert scrub than I would have found losing my money in some casino.  And now I have a reason to go back; to do the casino crawl.

In the funniest twists of fate, I'm actually going to be meeting up with an old friend while I'm over there -- she's an army wife, currently living in Germany, and she booked her Much Ado tickets for the same weekend I did! I think we'll probably do something ultra-geeky together, like hit up the Doctor Who Experience or something.

Lake Mead, taken on the Nevada/Arizona state line on top of Hoover Dam, June 2010

One across-the-board reaction I've gotten from everyone, however, is, well, jealousy.  Some of it's not real jealousy; maybe more envy, want, desire.  But some are jealous, and seem actually, honestly offended  that I'm going.

I know I'm not explaining it very well.  Let me try again.

There's a difference between saying "Damn!" because you're impressed and "Damn!" because you're mad, or in pain.  It's the inflection, the tone, the context of the conversation.  You see this often with swear words -- take something as simple as "shut up".  If you're telling a friend about a crazy event, and they're sitting there going, "Oh my God, shut up", you know to keep going because they just don't believe what you're saying.  If you're giving your opinion on a topic and someone says, "Oh, just shut up", you get mad because they're insulting you, they don't want to hear what you have to say.

So when you, person I do not know -- or at least not that well -- look at me and say in a nasty, nasily voice, "Well, must be nice!" when I say that I'm going on my trip?  Why, yes.  Yes it is.  I'll bring you back pictures.  Yes, this is a hell of a luxury.  I'm well aware of this.  Bringing up children and bills does not make me feel guilty, nor does it make your life mean more than mine.  It makes you look petty and, well, jealous.

So, you know, shut up.  You're supposed to do all this stuff when you're young, anyway.

Entrance to the San Diego Zoo, June 2009

I've also been told that I should See America First, with that backwards undercurrent of patriotic fervor that insinuates that I don't love my country because I'd like to go Elsewhere.  I have seen America -- I've stood on the shores of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico, and I've crossed over into Canada for about 30 minutes.  Granted, I haven't seen all of the middle part, but I'm working on it.

I'm prefering to think of myself as an abassador!  Not to brag too much on myself, but I'm fairly intelligent, well-read, well-adjusted for the most part. Polite, friendly, outgoing, go-with-the-flow...  We as Americans NEED that image.  Going overseas and bitching about getting a full English breakfast in a restaurant in London a) makes you look like a dumbass and b) makes us all look dumb. It's like going to your friend's house and bitching because they don't have your sheets on their beds. Why the hell did you bother leaving home in the first place?

Honestly, in all, I'm rather glad I'm going to be traveling by myself. I get downright cranky when I'm trying to make trains and airplanes, and I don't like people seeing me when I'm like that -- at least, not people I know. I'm going to be doing what I want, when I want to. That sounds like a great vacation, does it not?

I just wish justifying and explaining it wasn't such a chore!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bravery and the Fine Lines

"Can you hear that? That’s me smiling, y’all. I’m smiling so loud you can fucking hear it."
-- Jenny the Bloggess

My last entry concerning what I am coming to call The Great California Wedding Rush was, basically, a rant post.  It was quick (well, for me) and off the cuff, and full of sarcasm and anger.

Well, I'm back from Cali now, not as well rested as I'd like to be (damn you jetlag, still kicking my butt two days later). I've still got the sarcasm, but now I've got a serene focus that's helping me glide through the days.

The weekend was short -- far, far too short, but then again all time is when it involves good friends.  I spent the majority of my time at the beautiful Mission Inn in Riverside, California, where my friends got married in the gorgeous chapel on site. 

Now, in my last blog post I mentioned the story of the Origin of Love, from Plato's famous Symposium, a conversation about love that supposedly occurred in real life and was heard down the line by Plato and written down.  The particular story I cited was told by the character of Aristophanes, a real-life contemporary of Socrates'. Since he was a comic poet, some scholars have interpreted his myth as a parody of creation myths. But even if it was intended to be that way, it still contains that one good thing that call great comedy does:

On one level? It's true.

People always say, "You're starting out on this journey together" to newlyweds. Roads and travel and new lives are easy parallels, and it's easy to equate a partner with a passenger or fellow traveller; someone you've brought along for the ride, to talk to you during the long stretches of nothing, to take over when you need some well-needed rest, and someone to enjoy the sights with.

So let me say this, to our lovely newlyweds, M & S (I'd switch the order, but it wasn't that sort of wedding): Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your happy, happy day. Thank you for reminding me, the old cynic that cringes when someone says "God bless you" when I sneeze, that not all religious people are the fire-and-brimstone types that get far too much press and ruin it for the rest. Thank you for showing me within twenty minutes of meeting the two of you exactly what I want, and for giving me the hope that someday, I will be as complete as you (seriously, you both just glow when you talk about the other). Thank you for giving me a moment during the day where I was able to realize that there was no room for the typical single-at-a-wedding melancholy, that everyone I loved was happy, that there was absolutely no room for anything but overwhelming joy, that I was fiercely happy.

Yes, your road together will be hard -- potholes that most people don't even imagine will probably be your norm -- but you are both strong, and strong together.  You have faced tough times before, and you will face them again, and damn it you will be stronger for it, not weaker. Steel is forged through fire and water, after all.  And we love you, even when it feels like no one else does.  Wholly, completely, no matter what.  Fuck them. You have us. And we're better anyway.

While I've got everyone here, though, I'd like to say something to my not-so newlyweds (EL and her honey), my no-longer newlyweds (A & R), my almost-weds (N & E), my never-gonna-happen-and-we're-just-fine-thank-you-very-muches (Midassa and Walkabout Man):  You are all so much braver than you think.  You've chosen a path and you're sticking to it and to each other and that? Is brave. Even if you don't think so, I find you to be incredibly brave.

To the rest of us, the never-doing-that-agains, the never-gonna-happens:  Love actually does exist. I've seen it. And with far too alarming regularity for it to be a fluke.  But even if it doesn't, that's okay.  Striking out on your own and doing things that make you happy is brave as hell as well.  I daresay even moreso, because you'll have ignorant fools telling you how brave you are to do that all by yourself!  And we'll smile and nod and say Oh yes, it is, isn't it? and secretly laugh inside at how easy it is to please ourselves.

And finally, to all of you, named and unnamed: Thank you for letting me a part of your journey, even in the limited capacities of annoying backseat driver and quick pit stop crew.  I love you all.

One day I hope to be as brave.