Monday, December 30, 2013

My Year in Review- 2013

“Would the seed of a new kind of life, scattered here by the wind, take hold?” 
Tulips in Holland at Keukenhof (May)

As 2013 comes to an end I thought I would take some time to reflect on the year and remind anyone who reads this that your current condition is only as permanent as you make it.

To some, a year flies by like nothing, but to others it drags on and on seeming to never end. Mine was a bit of both. When I made a list of the big events that occurred in each month I realized that though this year was a struggle for me, there was an awful lot of good that came out of it. I've never done one of these before, but here are some of the awesome things that happened this year.

Fireworks on the street in Amsterdam.

January- After ringing in the new year with new friends in Amsterdam, I had a lot to occupy my mind. Life in the Dam was not getting any better. I made the choice to travel as much as possible and make any real decisions about keeping my job or not slowly and carefully.

Fuengirola beach just outside Malaga.

February- I spent my February Crocus Break in Wales where I made the final decision to quit my job and change my life. Later in the month I decided to seek out the sun and headed to Fuengirola, Spain to clear my head. It was a month for initiating change and gaining some perspective.

Mumford & Sons in Rome, Amazing!

March- Keeping to my goal of increased travel, I headed to Rome for a Mumford and Sons concert. I met lots of great ladies working all over the world. My sister Kate also came to visit! Now that I knew I was quitting my job I initiated a new goal of making the most of Europe while I was there.

Queen's Day festivities in Amsterdam

April- Spring was sort of starting, but not really. My parents came to visit at the beginning of the month, and I was a super tourist in my own city and on a day trip to Belgium. On a whim I also decided to take a trip to Wales for a weekend. The weather was amazing, and it was the perfect way to recharge and get out of the city for a couple days. Finally, to end the month, Queen's Day was quite an event with the induction of a new king and lots of orange.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

May- May was another big month with tulips finally blooming after a very long and cold winter. I took a visit to the acclaimed Keukenhof which was pretty spectacular. It was like the Disney World of tulips. Later in the month I visited Krakow, Poland with a great friend. What an amazing city it was filled with so much history and hidden gems around every corner. It was never on my radar, but wow what a place. I'll be blogging more about this one in the coming year.

Tuileries Garden, Paris

June- This was my last full month living and working in Amsterdam, and boy was it a full one. It started with a visit to Valencia, Spain, a surprise trip for my partner Tim. It was sunny and warm and a great place to go for a bike ride to the beach. The rest of my month was a bit of a blur filled with packing and a visit from my other sister Jess.  We did get a chance to escape to Paris for a couple days and take a couple afternoon jaunts to the nearby towns of  Haarlem and Leiden.

Summit of Shirley Canyon Trail, Squaw Valley

July- The adventure was only just beginning. On July 1 I moved from Amsterdam back to the states. There, I spent my time mostly in the Northwest in Squaw Valley, Portland, Seattle and Sequim. I also spent a few days with family back home in New Jersey. Travel was starting to become the lifestyle. I officially had no home base (except for my parents), and I was living out of a suitcase. Reality was starting to set in, but I ignored it because I was having too much fun.

Hot air balloon in Sequim

August- This was a relaxing month for me with lots of time in both Sequim, Washington and Sparta, New Jersey visiting with family. I got to ride in a hot air balloon and paddle a kayak for the first time.

Cape Cod looking for clams

September- Life had finally set in, and I realized that I didn't have a job to go back to at the end of the summer. Everyone else did. But I didn't want one, so I took up running even though nothing was chasing me. I also went to Cape Cod for a weekend of family fun.

October- Alas, summers have to come to an end, so I decided to book more travel. I headed back to the Netherlands oddly enough to erase the negative feelings and visit friends. It was also my transition to temporarily moving to Aberystwyth, Wales. It was my new home until December.

Edinburgh, Scotland

November- I thought November was going to be a quiet, boring month. It was absolutely not. I participated in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a whole novel. I also took a very long bus ride to London to visit a couple fabulous people. And who could forget my week in Edinburgh, Scotland where I developed a fondness for haggis. It's a very fine food.

Me and a falcon in a desert near Dubai

December- Wrapping up the year I did something to help me focus my life a little. I went to Dubai for The Creativity Workshop. It was one of the best decisions of the year maybe even my life. I'm serious. And after that workshop it was like my life started to open up. I landed a travel writing job, and I have moved from Wales to spend some time living in the Pacific Northwest.

So much can happen in a year. If someone had asked me last year where I thought I would be a year from that moment, there is no way I could have predicted where I am now. It's been quite a ride but totally worth it.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from 2013 is that anything can happen, and it can happen fast. Within one year I went from being a teacher in a job that made me very unhappy to changing my entire life. I no longer go to a job in the morning, and I'm not tied to someone else's calendar. My life has become completely flexible, and I'm loving it. Once one decision was made, the rest sort of just rolled out easily like sugar cookie dough.

“In life you can either choose to follow your heart or not. There is no middle way.”

Pottery in Valencia, Spain (June)
Quotes from the book One Day the Shadow Passed by Jonathan Reggio p. 151 and p. 138 respectively.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Bench of Left Behind Travelers

I knew I only had an hour from when the plane touched down in Seattle to get all the way through customs and out to meet my shuttle to Sequim.  I couldn't hear out of my left ear due to a lingering cold and an enormous amount of sinus pressure. I had been traveling for about two full days, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. Sleep, however, was not in my near future.

"Do you live in Sequim?" said the border control agent.
"No I don't live there. I'm just visiting for Christmas," I said still not able to hear very well.
"Well where do you live then?" he replied.
"New Jersey. No actually, my parents live there. I don't live there any more. I'm moving to Washington. It's complicated."
Yes, I actually told Mr. Border Patrol that I couldn't tell him where I lived because it was too complicated. Knowing that he wasn't getting anywhere with me and seeing the ever increasing line behind me, I was sent through with a nod and roll of the eyes.

All was going well, and I was moving through the various lines fairly quickly. But it wasn't fast enough. There were just too many people arriving from all sorts of international locations all at the same time. Dragging myself through the whole airport out past baggage claim to door 00, I was met with freezing temperatures and no shuttle bus. I was 20 minutes late. Luckily I had a back up plan, but it wouldn't arrive at the airport for a couple of hours.

I found the perfect spot to rest until my ride arrived. It was a set of 3 chairs connected to each other in true airport style. I was soon joined by an older woman probably in her 60's. And soon after that, a third woman a little older than me filled in the third chair. There were plenty of other seats available, but for some reason the three of us sat together.
"What day is it?" the older woman turned to me and asked with a hint of confusion in her voice.
What she didn't realize, however, was that I wasn't really sure what day it was or what time zone I was in. The only reason I knew I was in Seattle was because there was a big sign that said I was.

I looked at her and said, "That all depends on where you are, but I think it's the fourteenth."
"So it's not the fifteenth then?" she replied.
"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it's the fourteenth, but I've been on a plane for a really long time." I said.
The other woman laughed, and suddenly the three of us were sharing a moment.
"I told my kids to pick me up on the fifteenth," the older lady said to me.  "I guess I'll have to call them and tell them to come and get me today."

She fiddled with her phone and laughed about her mistake. I have no idea how long she had been sitting in the airport. It could have been hours. The baggage claim area had cleared out, and all of the people on the arriving flights had left except for me and the two women sitting in the adjacent seats. We were the bench of left behind travelers like the island of misfit toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
The older lady began to tell her story.

She had spent the past four months with divided time between Greece and Iraq, but it was the two months in Iraq that I found particularly interesting. There was nothing different about what she was telling me and the pictures she was showing to me, but that's why it piqued my interest. While most Americans view Iraq to be a dangerous and barren place, this woman weaved together a beautiful image of the northern part of this previously off limits nation.

"We went to a beautiful hotel and had a nice lunch meeting with important government officials," she said as she flicked through the photos on her phone.

I sat silently as I looked at pictures of a city that could have been pretty much anywhere. There was traffic and buildings and people walking around the sidewalks.

"A lot has changed since I was there thirty four years ago. I couldn't even find my school, but it's a beautiful place."

The other lady and I sat on either side of her smiling when we saw pictures of family members and nodding when she told us about the things that they did.

"One day, my family and I went up to the mountains. We had a campfire. The children had machine guns. It's just what they do there. There's no one around, so they shoot the guns as a game. One of the little boys shot the gun, and it backfired. It scared him, so he will probably wait until he is a little older until he plays with the machine guns again. Everyone has the guns. It's just how it is over there."

Immediately I began to think about how wrong I had been to think that entire countries in the Middle East were the way I had seen them on the news with constant bombings and unstable situations. I should know better being the traveler that I like to think that I am, but I'm guilty of being an American and letting my knowledge of a place be guided by some news clips.

The other lady got up then to check to see if her ride had arrived. The older lady went back to the task of trying to call her children to see if one of them would come pick her up. Within minutes we were strangers again. There was no goodbye. They simply left with no expectation of having to adhere to any social standard, and we were all ok with that.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Culture Shock of Grocery Shopping

The aisles never seem to end!
Variety is the spice of life right? Variety is one thing, but having too many choices can put you over the edge. Grocery shopping for most is a routine and many times mundane activity. It's one of those things that in your home country you rarely think about. But the minute you are faced with grocery shopping in a country that is not your own, it makes things much more interesting and sometimes very stressful.

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to go to the local markets to find the great things that aren't sold at home. Even local grocery stores can be a great spot for gifts to bring back for friends and family as long as it's not perishable.  But that's traveling when you have unlimited amounts of time to wander aimlessly.
Boroughs Market in London

What's not so fun is when you are living abroad and you have just worked a very long day, and all you want is some taste of home. Armed with your google translate on your phone (if it's working), you go to the store hoping to find something that resembles a familiar meat or anything really that could be thrown together in a reasonable amount of time. Let's face it, shopping for food takes exponentially longer when you are away from home. The peanut butter is never the same, and you won't easily find Kraft mac and cheese. But you adapt. You find new things that you like and can't live without like that Old Amsterdam cheese I came to adore.

Just Mayo! 
But what about when you come back home after living abroad? To me that was even more traumatic than figuring out that the word for chicken in Dutch was kip. My first trip to a grocery store after I got home was to a Stop and Shop in Northern New Jersey. I felt like I had just stepped onto Mars. There were little remote controls to track your purchases, computer screens to order items from the deli, and aisles upon aisles of pretty much everything. There was even almost a whole aisle devoted to mayonnaise. I was floored. I walked around the freezing cold store in the summer with my mouth open shaking my head in disbelief.  My mom, who I was with, wasn't the slightest bit fazed by the whole ordeal, and she thought I was the crazy one. Is it really necessary to have that many things to choose from? In my mind it's just too much.
My personal cheese man, Fred

I quickly realized how spoiled I had been living abroad. Sure it was hard to find the specific brands I was used to, but nothing beats having a cheese man in Amsterdam who I knew on a first name basis. I missed trolling the endless open air markets in the various places I had been. I missed the Saturday market where I would buy a bag full of produce for under 10 euros.

So my little nugget of information here is that I advise you to seek out your local farmers' markets and specialty shops. They may cost a little bit more money, but you are getting a better product (most of the time) and you are helping local businesses stay afloat. It's easy to go visit the big guys because they have everything, but what they are missing is that human connection you get when you visit a vendor who grew the tomatoes himself or helped to harvest the honey and knows the backstory of the bees.

Market in Cuzco, Peru

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dubai Desert Safari

I pride myself on trying to find off the beaten track sorts of things when I travel. I enjoy meeting locals and exploring without an agenda. With all of this said, I couldn't go to Dubai without seeing the desert, so I booked a desert safari. I knew it would be a tourist trap, but I did it anyway. And even though it is nowhere near authentic, I would recommend going on one if you happen to find yourself there.

Here's how it went:

I booked the excursion from, gasp, my hotel with a friend from the workshop I was taking. We were picked up from the hotel in an SUV with four other people. I was fortunate to be told by the very large man in the red shirt, we will call him Big Red for storytelling purposes, that I should sit in the front. Score!

Out of town we drive with Big Red talking loudly on his phone and me admiring the change of scenery from ample sky scrapers to barren desert. It was fantastic. We soon pulled up to a small grocery store and were informed by Big Red that we needed to go to the wash room. We all obediently followed orders. Upon our return to the car we were each given a plastic bag. We were informed that it was in case we got sick on the ride in the dunes. Yet another reason I was happy to be sitting in the front seat. I had also taken a motion sickness pill before we left. Off we went into the desert.

Me, my new friend and a falcon.
The video doesn't really do the whole experience justice. It was pretty intense driving around the dunes, watching other vehicles get stuck and slide down the sides. Big Red would point out various vehicle troubles to me throughout the drive. I told him that I was happy that I had a safe driver. He said that his company never got stuck. I wish I could say that I was alone in the desert with my thoughts like the photos suggest, but I would be lying. There were nineteen other SUV's caravanning along with us. But we did get to stop at various places along the way to meet a falcon or admire the sun setting over the sand.

Hubbly, Bubbly Shisha Man
After a long and windy drive up and over many sandy hills, the ride was over and my stomach was very happy for that. We then drove about twenty minutes further on a road to the campsite. My friend, Kate,
Desert Campsite
Belly Dancing Show
and I were the first to hop out of the car and up to the camel riding spot. Up we went seated on top of the poor guy. It was not a smooth ride, but it is just one of those things that you just have to do. Getting down is the tricky part, not for you for the camel. I wish I had a video of that because you have to see it to believe it. Luckily it was a short ride, and my bucket list item was complete. I felt sorry for the camel though because his night was just beginning. In the campsite there were different tents with things to do like henna for the ladies and hubbly bubbly shisha (better known as hooka). After some tea and relaxing pillow-side next to the tables, a large buffet barbecue dinner was brought out. It was barbecue in the sense that there was lots of grilled meat. Everything else was a local dish of some sort including a lentil curry, hummus, tabbouleh and a whole lot more. The night ended with a belly dancing show and a quiet ride home. It was a perfect way to end the week.

Me and Kate on a camel sporting our new pants.

Dubai: A City of Contrasts

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Dubai. I was there for a workshop on creativity (cool right?), and it's hard to think of a better place to discover that there are truly no limits on what can be accomplished. I have to start out by saying that it is an amazing place, like no other in the world. It's as though pieces of successful businesses have been siphoned into this new creation. But it seems as though it will never be done. The powers that be will never be satisfied because something bigger and better will always be on the horizon, and so they build.

The city is a mass of construction sites and cranes making it difficult to find your way around by walking. Everyone takes taxis and likes to spend time in the air conditioned buildings. I do not. So on my first afternoon I decided to walk to the beach. I knew it wasn't far, and the concierge at my hotel, Marina Byblos, told me the direction to walk. "It will be right there," he said. But when I got there, all I saw was a wall with construction equipment on the other side. I knew that if I could find an opening in the wall I could get to the beach, but I didn't want to be traipsing around active construction sites to get there. So I walked. And on my walk I passed many fast food restaurants that one would see in the states. I saw huge hotels and apartment compounds with stores galore selling fur coats of all things. I must mention that it was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there. I was so close to the beach, but I just couldn't find a way to get onto the sand. Finally I reached a Hilton that surely had beach access. A man pointed me in the direction of a small space between construction sites through corrugated walls to finally arrive at the sand. By that time I was quite tired, so I plopped down on the sand just in time to see a magnificent sunset. What a contrast it was between beach and development. There were working cranes silhouetted by the sinking sun in front of me and the construction sites that made it so hard for me to find the sand behind me. It was one of those highly disturbing yet utterly beautiful moments. Does progress really help us progress? I'm not so sure.

Dubai as part of the U.A.E. is only forty two years old. They just celebrated their national day before I arrived. They are such a young country, but they have done so much. It seems that many things about this nation were well thought out. I don't necessarily agree with them though. Status is extremely important, and it can be seen in many areas of the city. People's salaries are dependent upon their nationality. Emirati are paid the highest (they only make up about 19% of the population interestingly enough), next in line are U.S. and U.K. nationals, and it goes on from there. Teachers are also among the highest paid workers in the nation. They seem to have their priorities straight on that one. The license plates are also a way to show status. The fewer the numbers, the higher your social standing. The sheikh has just one number. But the average joe expat will have five numbers.

I must say that I think I will be more likely to travel in the Middle East after this trip. I met people from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and other countries in the area that could be considered risky for travel. I have become a bit fascinated with the cultural contrasts especially with the women. Dubai is not strict when it comes to traditional dress like other areas of the U.A.E. or surrounding nations. It is very common to see Russians in very short and tight outfits looking very comfortable among women wearing burqa. But for the Emirati women, it is abaya (long typically black dress) and hajab (head covering also in black) all the way. Walking around the malls one will see these women with their abaya dripping in crystal or diamonds for the extremely wealthy. And that's just part of the show at the malls.

These malls (there are too many to count) are not just for shopping. They are full days of entertainment. At the Mall of the Emirates you can go skiing while at the Dubai mall you can go ice skating or visit an aquarium. While I was at the Dubai Mall I saw a fountain show in front of the Burj Kalifa (tallest building in the world). It would be difficult to find someone who wasn't impressed by the show. But besides all of the unique architecture and never ending malls, there is a somewhat hidden gem. It's called Old Dubai. Now, I know what you're thinking. Just a minute ago I said that the country is only forty two years old. It's true, I'm not talking about old as in Delos in Greece B.C. old. I'm talking Dubai old, but it's still pretty charming, and a respite for the wallet because everything is much cheaper here.

The first thing to do is visit Ravi Pakistani restaurant. For lovers of the hole in the wall local establishment, this is heaven. The food is fantastic and authentic and soooo cheap. Four of us ate for what it would have cost for one of us somewhere else in the city. Pakistani food is pretty similar to Indian food, so things like butter chicken and balti are on the menu. Once bellies are full, it's time to visit the old souks. To get there, hop a dhow (type of boat) to go across the creek. It only costs one dirham which is pennies if you convert to USD. Sunset is a perfect time to do this. I was lucky enough to have a friend who lives in Dubai and speaks Urdu (more widely spoken than Arabic because of the majority of Pakistani and Indian people who live there), so he did all of the negotiating. Don't be afraid to haggle, and spend some time in the little shops. Have a cup of tea with the shopkeeper; it's completely safe. The best things to buy there are spices, gold and textiles like scarves. It can be incredibly overwhelming, but if you take your time and don't give yourself a time limit, it can surely be one of the highlights of the trip. It was for me.

Dubai was a city of polarity for me, but perhaps that is what makes it so special.

The Creativity Workshop in Dubai

Dubai hadn't been a place that I really wanted to spend much time. I had been to the airport a couple of times on layovers, and I felt that was enough. I wasn't really into the glitz and glamour or all the tall buildings or extravagant shopping malls. It just didn't seem like my kind of travel. Then something happened; I had a reason to go.

How I found The Creativity Workshop is not important, but why I decided to go is. Last spring, I quit my job and quit the profession that I worked for a decade in which to be successful. I found myself with no job and a scary sense of freedom. Since I had spent the last ten years not working during the summers, the fear really didn't hit until around September when I realized that I truly had nothing to do and no path to take. I had no passion, nothing to work toward. I was, to put it simply, lost. I was originally scheduled to take this workshop in July right after quitting my job, but plans changed, and I put it off. Then September happened, so I knew I had to take action. I registered for the workshop in Dubai hoping for a spark. Then I forgot about it.

I went to Wales and had all sorts of small adventures in the small university town of Aberystwyth. I went to London to visit two lovely people whom I had come to know during my time in Amsterdam, and I started to write. Things were going well. Then it was time for my seven hour flight.

I planned on spending most of the time I was in Dubai by myself, so I had a list of things that I wanted to see and a contact from my dad's company in case anything went wrong. I thought that it would be a trip similar to Istanbul where I found a couple tours but mostly wandered around alone. I was most definitely wrong. I believe there was some divine intervention that occurred when I decided to choose my seat on the first day of the workshop. I met Kate first. And while I didn't tell her this (she'll read it now), she will be a person I will cherish forever. Throughout the workshop and during dinners and a desert safari, she encouraged me in a truly sincere way to the point where I feel that I have gained a sense of direction for my life again. Then there was Zamin who came in late the first day and sat sort of behind me. We became instant friends, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard. We had inside jokes together before there were jokes. It was magical. To be totally ridiculous: he's my brother from another mother, truly.

So what did I learn? What did I do? In those four days in a place that I never would have thought to go, I found myself again. I found motivation again. I found humor again. The workshop, and our amazing leader Kirpal, taught three basic things: play, process and pleasure. If you do not have those three things, you do not have creativity. And creativity comes when you least expect it from the most unlikely places. So let your mind wander and enjoy the process of creating something. For me it has become writing. I have a renewed spirit and motivation for writing that I hope I can nurture in the weeks and months to come.

And while I don't know if I am a professional writer, I am something. I got more than a spark that week, I got a whole campfire.