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1)    Travel is the antidote to cynicism.
Over and over again as we travel, we find ourselves relying on the goodness and hospitality of strangers.  Although there are some hic-cups here and there, cases of being overcharged because of our nationality or sent places we don’t really want to go, I’ve found that the vast majority of the time, I am treated with kindness by people who have absolutely no reason to bother with me at all.  Travel gives me a more positive view of humanity.  And I’m not the only one.  Social scientist have found that the more people travel, the more trusting they become.  And that truly is priceless.

 2)    Travel helps you see things with “fresh eyes”.
The more you travel the more you notice things, similarities and differences.  Small details catch your eye – what people wear, or what they eat, or the sounds that animate this place in the early morning as opposed to the sounds I hear at home.  Daily routines are novel and interesting.  There is beauty in the mundane, as I go through the world as both participant and observer.   Best of all, if I stay in this mentality long enough, I can take it home with me and imbed my own routines with a sense of meaning and wonder.

3)    Travel reminds you that there is no one right way to live.
I’ve seen people who live, farm and go to school all on floating barges in a river.  And people who have never used a fork or sat on a toilet. Mark Twain’s quote that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…,” proves true time and time again and that alone is reason enough for traveling.  Witnessing all of these various cultures is also liberating.  It means encountering people approaching things in a different way.  The question, “Why do they do it like that?” is quickly followed by another question. “Why do we do it like this?” Suddenly there are choices where things were once automatic.

My new home town..

My new home town..

4)    Travel stimulates your imagination.
What would it be like to have been born here? What would I be like? How was this place different before Europeans arrived? Why have they adopted this from Culture A and that from Culture B?  Like any voyage of discovery, travel breeds more questions than it answers- which is the whole point. 

5)    Travel pushes you out of your comfort zone.
Once abroad, complacency will not work.  Stagnation is broken.  You have to think on your feet.  Removed from your area of competence and expertise, you are now a beginner.  This is the land of novelty, the place where discovery can happen. It is simultaneously humbling and stimulating. 

Few things are as uncomfortable, or as unforgettable, as a day on a camel...

Few things are as uncomfortable, or as unforgettable, as a day on a camel…

6)    Travel reminds you how lucky you are.
If you are able to be traveling, it means you are the lucky one.  The one who got to take time off work to be here, the one who can afford a flight, most likely someone who was born in a place of relative peace and affluence.  Travel reminds you not to take these things for granted.  Meeting people who have had their homes destroyed by war, or who never had the opportunity leave their homes, or to complain about school teaches us compassion.  Knowing more of the world makes it smaller, and makes us better citizens. 

7)    Travel teaches patience.
Patience isn’t so much something you feel, as something you do.  And traveling provides lots of opportunities- all those hours on the plane/train/boat/bus, or worse yet, waiting for the plane/train/boat/bus.  Knowing how to wait, how to just hang, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing on any “to do” list, is not a glamorous skill, but it is a useful one which will serve you your whole life long.

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8)    Travel reminds you to take joy in simple pleasures.
It’s good to be reminded that hot water is a luxury and home cooked meals are a privilege, and to enjoy them as such.  A sink can be a laundry room: a paperback, a treasure; and a quiet corner, your own little piece of paradise.  A friend once described me as someone who doesn’t need a lot to be happy.  Fabulous! I think travel has cultivated that quality and what better quality could one ever wish for?

9)    Travel makes you know yourself better.
Travel provides the context for examining your own life, for measuring the degree to which you are a product of your culture and your environment, for questioning your identity and assumptions.  Travel has taught me the origin of many of my values, which was sometimes surprising. 

10)   Travel exercises the gray matter.
Ever read those lists of suggestions for maintaining a healthy brain?  They say things like, “Take a different route home,” or “Do crosswords or sudoku puzzles.”  Here’s an idea.  Instead of doing puzzles, try to figure out the Metro system in a large foreign city.  Or put yourself in a situation that forces you to learn new words for hello and thank you every week. Calculate how much of your own currency you’re spending whenever you hand over some of that funny-looking money. If your “home” keeps changing, than it’s guaranteed that you’ll be using different routes to get there.  Brain training is a good excuse to continue traveling when you’re beyond your youth.

One of the main goals of all this brain exercise to maintain memory.  Travel not only gives you a healthy brain and happy soul, it means that you bank up memories to enjoy in the future.  Happy travels!

 

I’ve sometimes heard travelers brag about not using a guide book.  Not me.  As a woman traveling alone, my guide book gives me a sense of confidence and security.  It allows me to revel in anticipation before the trip starts, leads me to other travelers who will tell me of places that are not in any book and gives me a heads-up about places that I personally will not enjoy. Getting the most out of your travel guide book means making it your comfortable and indispensable travel companion.

Belizean dreaming. Photo by Caitlin Regan.

Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Guide Book – Step 1: Choose the Right Book

Moon Guides, Rough Guides, Lonely Planets – there are a lot of good guide books out there.  Making the best choice for you depends on how you travel and how you’re going to use your book.  I enjoy the hardback feel and the beautiful photos in Eyewitness guides when I’m planning a trip, but it would never work for me on the road.  When selecting a guidebook make sure that it is appropriate to your brand of travel – your budget, your most likely mode of transportation etc.  Over the years, I’ve developed brand loyalty to my favorite line of travel guides.  They are not necessarily the best guidebooks out there, but the fact that I know their layout – know that there is a “Getting There and Away” section, and that “Sleeping” and “Eating” come after “Sights” saves me a lot of time.

Beloved LPs! Photo by Phil Whitehouse.

Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Guide Book – Step 2: Create an Itinerary

I have never followed any of the suggested itineraries in a guide book.  But I have partially followed all of them.  I use the itineraries, and the “best of” lists at the beginning of each section to find out what places I want to visit.  (Looking at tours online can also help you get an idea of a country’s not to be missed destinations.) This gives me a loose plan for my travels.

Most days, I may or may not stay in hotels/hostels recommended in the guide book.  But if I’m arriving in a new city late at night, I like to have plan.  In this case, I use my guide book to identify my lodging and call ahead of time.

Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Guide Book – Step 3: Prepare Your Book for the Road

“Hey- how come your Lonely Planet is smaller than everyone else’s?” a fellow traveler in Central America asked me.  It was due to a premeditated and benign act of butchery.  I’m a big believer in packing light.  So knowing that I was only going to travel in three countries, I carefully and precisely cut my book in half.  I then made a few post-surgical adjustments- reinforcing the binding with packaging tape and covering the back-page with clear contact paper.  Finally, since the part of the book I would be carrying did not include the index, I used to Post-it flags to mark the different countries, maps, and other pages I knew I would want to access frequently.

Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Guide Book – Step 4: Bring Accessories

Next, I pack a few small items (most of which are useful to have along anyway) as accessories to my guide book:

  • I take some extra Post-it flags and stick them in the inside cover.  Chances are good that there will be other pages I will want to flag.
  • Always carry a writing utensil.  My favorite is a two-sided pen – ball point on one end, highlighter on the other.
  • Pocket knife – you’ll use this in Step Five, and also to open your wine, cut pieces of fruit, spread cheese on bread, etc.
  •  Scotch tape – also for Step Five.  You don’t need the bulky plastic dispenser, just a small roll of tape.

Getting the Most Out of Your Travel Guide Book – Step 5: Use and Abuse

I’m sure many of the librarians out there probably sentenced me to hell after Step Three, but that was just the beginning.  After all, this is not a coffee table book.  It is meant to be used and abused.  Wanting to feel lightweight and unobtrusive as I explore a city, or a ruin or a museum means carrying as little as possible.  So the night before I open my book to the map page (and possibly a few other pages relating to my present local) and carefully score them with my trusty pocket knife.   Then I tear these pages out and carry them in my pocket as I explore the city.  No need to look like a tourist with my nose in guidebook, no need to obtain another, bulky, difficult-to-fold map.  I am ready to go.

When I leave this city I will tape the pages back into the book and cut out the pages for my next destination.

 Hope you’ll take a page from my book and make the most of yours!

Winter is just about finishing up in most parts of the world but for some, cold climates and constant snowfall is the norm. So with all you in mind out in Switzerland, Canada, Russia, etc. this post is for you. While others may be planning a day trip at the beach you can be getting ready for some luxury skiing holidays that will rock your socks! I have put together a list of the top 5 must-see ski resorts where you can enjoy a winter wonderland year-round. Let me know if I missed any really good ones that you’d suggest.

The Top 5 Ski Resorts Around The World

Imagine taking the big dive into one of these snow-filled mountains!

 Vail, Colorado

This ski resort has been known to many as “America’s favorite resort” as it hosts the largest ski area in the US (5,300 acres!) and the fastest high-speed detachable quads on one mountain. This resort is pretty intense and caters plenty of other wintery activities like dog sledding, ice skating, hockey, snowmobiling etc. I don’t know about you, but dog sledding sounds like it’d be one awesome adventure!

Zermatt, Switzerland

This is a place where things may get a little quiet, but don’t let that fool you! Not in the least bit, because this is one heck of a ski resort to check out. Zermatt holds the world’s second biggest lift-served vertical drop and contains plenty of snowfall and outrageous adventure in their peaks. Gstadd and St.Moritz (a few other close by resorts) are also great experiences but if you want to indulge in the luxury, Zermatt’s no-car policy will really get you in the mood for relaxing and focusing on the slopes.

Kitzbuhel, Austria

If anyone of you reading this post is from Europe chances are, you’ve heard of this ski resort. For good reason too, this resort is considered the “Pearl of the Alps” and perhaps the most famous holiday resort in the Austrian Tyrol since it’s been around since the late 1800s. This is the place to get your skiing on and enjoy the plush piles of snow just waiting for you to break in.

Aspen, Colorado

I didn’t really want to put two resorts that are located so close to each other on this list, but what the heck? They’re both completely unique and worth being on this list. Especially if you want to ski with the rich and famous Aspen is DEFINITELY the place to be. No matter what skiing level you are, there’s a place for you (perhaps with a hefty price though) as there are various land groves located here. Aspen is also well-known for its steeps and its four mountains that are not linked (which are fabulous by the way).

Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia

These towering mountains provide the best skiing in North America, with the biggest vertical drop. (It’s impressive what a difference 30 years and $600 million can make.) Whistler has been constantly voted as “Best North American Ski Resort” and has been unofficially claimed as the “World’s Greatest Ski Resort”. Oddly enough skiing isn’t the only thing Whistler is becoming known for, as they provide a wide arrange of cultured foods in their resort that attract tourists as well so keep that in mind while planning.

Take in all the gorgeous views from a birds-eye view!

Alright so there you have it, The Top 5 Ski Resorts Around The World! In the big world of skiing I know there’s a ton that could qualify for this list but I had to be somewhat selective so what are your thoughts? If you’ve been to any of these, go ahead and share your experiences!!

Fabulous beaches, pre-Columbian ruins, fresh guacamole… one can think of so many reasons to visit Mexico.  Don’t forget the art.  During the first half of the last century, Mexico enjoyed one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.  The legacy these artists left is in itself a compelling reason to go to Mexico.  Here are some tips for appreciating the Mexican Murals:

  • Mexican Muralism was a movement, not just an art fad. Prior to this movement, art tended to be stuffy; portraits of rich people, landscapes and still-lifes and, of course, religious themes. The Mexican muralists believed that art should be public and idealistic. They used their talent as a means of social protest and made art for and about the masses.
  • The Mexican murals are true frescos, meaning that the painting had to be done while the plaster was still wet.  The artists not only had to ascend an elaborate scaffolding in order to do their work, but they had to do so under the time pressure of drying plaster.  Keeping this in mind as you view the murals makes their accomplishments seem even more remarkable.
  • There are murals everywhere, not just the famous ones.  Pop into the Town Hall of many a Mexican city and you’ll likely see a mural which either celebrates a triumph of the people or laments their suffering.  That being said, things become famous for a reason and you do not want to miss out on seeing the work of the “Big Three”.

Mural from the National Palace. Photo by Darij & Ana

The most famous Mexican muralist, and probably one of the most famous Mexicans period, is Diego Rivera.  His work can be seen in various places around the country, but the best examples are in Mexico City.  Some folks may feel intimidated by a mega-tropolis of this scale, but Mexico City is safe (it has a lower crime rate, including a lower drug-related crime rate than Washington DC), has an excellent Metro system and boasts at very least three “must see” items, including the Diego Rivera Murals, the National Museum of Anthropology and Teotihuacán.

The murals Rivera painted in the National Palace are the most famous and my favorite examples of his work.  However, I recommend saving these until after you have seen the murals in the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) building. Visiting the SEP first will allow you to view some of Rivera’s early work and therefore see his artistic development. More importantly, it’s a reminder that the true father of Mexican Muralism was not a muralist at all, or even an artist, but rather a bureaucrat. Jose Vasconcelos, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Education in the 1920s, commissioned artists to decorate numerous public buildings.  It’s likely that muralism movement would not have happened without his support.

Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace. Photo by Joaquín Martínez Rosado

Rivera’s paintings celebrate traditional Mexican life and the Mexican Revolution.  The noble “trinity of the revolution” – farmers, soldiers and factory workers- is a recurring theme.  Rivera was not one to be shy about his politics and if you scrutinize his paintings you may notice that the background on the left side depicts a more bountiful landscape than the background on the right.  Of course, you can only see that in the paintings that actually have a background. Rivera tended to pack his murals full of people, often well-known public figures whom it can be fun to identify.  The best example of this is his Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda – a painting so revered that even an earthquake showed it respect (leaving the painting intact while the building around it crumbled)!

Travel to Guadalajara to see a smattering of public buildings adorned with the work of Jose Clemente Orozco.  His image of Hidalgo is iconic.  (I think Lonely Planet actually used a photo of it for the cover of one of their books once.) When I went to the Hospico Cabañas, I was lucky enough to see another visitor lying flat on his back on a bench, staring up at cupola overhead.  When he left, I followed suit.  This was the perfect angle from which to view Orozco’s masterpiece Man of Fire.  Seen from below, the painted image truly seemed to be ascending through the ceiling.  Orozco literally executed these paintings one-handed, having lost his left hand in a childhood accident.  Orozco was less enamored with the Revolution than Rivera.  His images explore themes related to suffering and the dark side of humanity.

Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural of Hidalgo. Photo by Liz Saldaña

Orozco’s Man of Fire. Photo by Sachavir

Final among the “Big Three” and probably the most political we have David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Compared to Rivera and Orozco, Siqueiros painted in a more futuristic and abstract style.  He used an airbrush and overhead projector.  Having studied architecture before turning to art, Siqueiros refused to be bound by two dimensions, as seen in the mural The People to the University, the University to the People which covers the side of the National Autonomous University of Mexico  (UNAM) in Mexico City.  His work shows a fascination with angles and movement and geometry.

The People to the University, the University to the People by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Photo by Mr. Theklan

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out that the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City is a great place to see the work of all three masters.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to go home and paint a mural on one of your own walls!

March 8th was International Women’s Day and to commemorate that, this is a women’s travel story.  Yes, I do mean a tampon story.  Consider yourself warned.

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Driving from Panjin to Dan Dong should only have taken three or four hours, but the bus was taking the scenic route and the first snowstorm of the year had hit that November morning.  So instead, it took nine hours.  Nine hours, one pit stop.  And I was in that special monthly state of “enjoying being a girl”.

Ally, my travel partner, had been in China for several years, and was accustomed to how bad the bathrooms can be.  When the bus stopped at a small cement building in the middle of nowhere she said, “It’s going to be ugly,” and headed for the bathroom stalls.

Stall is really too generous a word for the structures I’m talking about.  There are no doors and the walls are only waist high.  Actually, bathroom is too generous a word.  What it is, is a trench to squat over.  Everyone uses one trench.  You can imagine how pretty this gets.  But I am not one to stand on ceremony.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.  I had to go and take care of the other issue as well.

I followed my friend into the bathroom. There were three stalls.  I was fourth person.  “Well, I’m not going to stand and stare at her while she pees,” I thought and backed out of the room.  I was new to China. Chinese women walked passed me and did stand, staring at the people peeing.  You do what you have to do.  So I went in, stared, then finally took my turn to squat with a nondescript, middle-aged Chinese woman staring at me.

Chinese Toilet by Dominic Rivard (a little nicer than one I was using)

Now, in recognition of the fact that half the people in the world never have to deal with this, let me just state the obvious and say that inserting a tampon is a very private thing.  It’s not just that I had never before done it in front of a stranger.  I had never done it in front of anyone at all.  Not in front of my former husband who I had lived with for 13 years, nor in front of my mother, who when I first came of age, described what to do, told me a funny story about her first time, and then left me to it.  Nope.  The Chinese woman was my first. Northeastern China is one of many corners of the world where women don’t use tampons.  I can’t imagine what she thought.  Quite possibly the experience was as disturbing for her as it was for me.

Back on the bus, I reflected on my new experience and was drawn back to a conversation I’d had with Zou Jun, the Chinese matriarch of the family I lived with, a few weeks before.  I had seen people making small fires and putting some kind of special paper into them. Zou Jun told me that fires were to honor one’s deceased relatives and that prayers go up on the smoke.  The papers I had seen were money, going to relatives in heaven who needed the money there.  (The fact that heaven had an economy and that one could be broke there was vaguely disturbing to me, but I often find descriptions of heaven disturbing.)  She went on to say that if you burn money for someone, you must not wear skirts or dresses when it warms up in the spring.  The spirits want to come back and can fly up into you that way.

Suddenly I sat upright in my seat on the bus and called to Ally who was stretched out in the seat across from me.  We were in a remote area of China and yelled back and forth in English with out worrying that someone else would understand.

“Hey, Ally,” I said, “You know how Zou Jun said that if you burn money for your relatives you’re not supposed to wear skirts because a spirit will fly up your vagina? Well do you think you’re safe if you have a tampon in?”

She howled with laughter.  “Maybe if it’s a super!”

Then she went on to muse over the lost marketing opportunity.  “Oh, my God, China is the biggest market in the world Tampax is going about it all wrong. They should be selling them as demon blockers.”

Demon blockers indeed.  For the rest of the trip, and probably for the rest of our lives, that is how she and I refer to those, oh-so-necessary little plugs.

Happy Women’s Day!

After long stays on my travels, I often come back with some big, general impressions about a place and its people: Chinese are practical, Arabs are hospitable, Latinos are polite.  Even though these generalization are based on my own experience, I question whether they’re true.  So reading the headlines about Greece, a country falling apart and threatening to take the EU down with it, if we are to believe what we hear, I wonder if my cultural experiences can provide any insight.

The last time I was in Greece was 20-some years ago, but I recently found myself comparing Greece holidays with an acquaintance who had been there ten years ago and another who had just been there recently.  We had all experienced being stuck in Athens for several days because the ferry workers were on strike and therefore, we couldn’t get to the islands.  It’s not scientific, I know, but it seems like if something is happening to random people at regular ten year intervals- well, maybe it happens a lot.  (Note to anyone planning their Greece holidays, budget some extra time for this.  You can plan on going to the islands before seeing Athens, that way if you’re stuck, you can see the sights in Athens while you wait.)  I ended up leaving Greece and returning a few weeks later.  When I came back the ferry workers strike had ended, but now the postal service was on strike. Was this mere coincidence or does it reflect something about their work ethic?

My other source of cultural experience about Greece comes from the Greeks I know best- the ones I’m related to. I’m half Greek. If you saw  My Big Fat Greek Wedding  (an excellent film, which contains no exaggeration) you’ve pretty much seen the story of my family. Based solely on the Chobans, I can say that yes, we do tend to be whiners and that I would not be surprised if Greeks as a whole have been resting on their collective laurels.  After all, not without reason, they view themselves as the culture that invented Western Civilization.  Problem is, that was 2,500 years ago.

My grandmother embodied this pride. She came to America as a young bride to a Greek man who had immigrated about ten years earlier.  I remember that we stopped to visit her in her house near Portland, Oregon on the way home from a trip to Seattle to see the King Tut exhibit.  We showed her the book with glossy color photos of the Egyptian marvels.  She scoffed.  To her, nothing could compare to the treasures of Greece.  Later that year, our family, my grandmother included, went on a camping trip through Europe.  My jaw dropped at the beauty of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.  But she only shrugged and said, “Wait until we get to Greece.”

Photo by Dennis Jarvis

When I visited Greece then and later as an adult, it (as well as its immediate neighbors) did strike me as less modern- a little more “third world” than other parts of Europe. Now, wading through a New York Times article, trying to figure out what happened, I understand that joining the EU propelled Greece into becoming a more “developed” state.  But development is a mixed bag.

I’m all for improved health outcomes and infrastructure (I wish everyone in the world had access to clean water). But sometimes a simpler life is more stable.  The subsistence farmer in a third world country is subject to the whims of nature. Floods and draught can be disastrous.  But he will be less shaken by a crashing stock market or the end of oil, than those of us in the first world.

There are problems we all have, but some seem to be more prevalent in developing countries- pervasive corruption, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, etc.  On the other hand, some of the greatest challenges facing the world today definitely stem from a “first world” mentality. After all, if Greece gave the world the blueprint for democracy, America provided the blueprint for consumerism (and consumerism beyond one’s means).  It appears that Greece  wound up with the worst of both worlds.

I don’t think the events in Greece should deter a prospective traveler from going there. It is the mother culture.  The antiquities are incredible, the cheese pie scrumptious, the Mediterranean stunning. But also, maybe we should all go to Greece to get a good look at what’s to come if we decide to keep trying to have more than we can pay for.

I heard about it when I first started traveling.  I heard about it when I took classes to become an ESL instructor. Everywhere, people were warning me about culture shock.  But what no one told me was that when the culture shock really hits is when you come home. “Reverse culture shock,” they call it.

Sure, there are a lot of times when you’re traveling when you feel like a fish out of water.  You don’t understand the language, the customs, the worldview of the people around you.  But feeling out of one’s element is a big part of why we travel.  After all, if everything was the same, and there was no “shock” then we might as well stay home.  Other travelers are usually witnessing the same things and you can process your observations with them.

Coming home it ain’t so easy. Culture tends to be invisible until you are outside of it.  It’s just The Way Things Are.  However, once you’ve seen that things don’t have to be That Way you begin to question why.  Sharing your questions, confusion and observations with friends who haven’t left home, doesn’t go over very well.  They just can’t relate.  If you are someone who really loves traveling, this reverse culture shock adds insult to injury.  It’s sad enough that your adventure is ending and you have to return to “real life.” These are a few ways I’ve found to soften the blow:

Photo by Kuster & Wildhaber Photography

  1. Go “home” to the wrong city-  I once traveled with an American who was flying back, not to his home, but to the city that was to be hosting the convention for nominating its party’s (decidedly the wrong party from my point of view) candidate for the presidency.  While I wouldn’t choose a political convention, I like the method of not going all the way home.  Flying into another city in your home country to visit a friend, attend a festival or just continue traveling allows you to feel that the adventure is continuing as you ease back into your own culture.
  1. Go into conversations with a plan- Talking to people when you get back can be tricky.  Surprisingly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in hearing about your trip.  Others ask questions that are so general (“So, how was it?”) that you won’t know what to say.  Likewise, having been gone means that even if you want to, you can’t really participate in chit-chat about happenings on the latest reality TV show.

Think about which experiences you can share which will easily translate.  For group settings, I usually go with stories that will get a laugh.  Adventures-in-eating tales work well.  Or sagas of the airport- something everyone relates to.

For friends that are interested, you may want to host a small gathering to share stories and photos.  Just remember not to expect too much.  Your experience may simply be too foreign for them to be truly engaged. If you have insights you’re burning to share, you might consider offering to do a presentation at your local library.  That way people who do have a genuine interest can self-select into your audience.

  1. Identify people you can debrief with- While everyone can laugh over tales of mistranslations in a Chinese karaoke bar, only some people will get it when I say that after months of using only chopsticks, putting a sharp metal object (fork) in my mouth, seems gross.  I’ll lose a few more people when I say that using squat-pot is clearly a better, cleaner way of releasing your meals later. So I save the big revelations- doubts about my own country’s child-rearing practices or a new awareness of how my viewpoints were shaped more by my culture than by my own free thoughts- for people who have traveled a bit themselves, or at least for friends who I know to be exceptionally open-minded.
  1. Bring pieces of the culture you’re leaving home with you- If you tend to miss the places you’ve visited, think of ways to bring the essence home.  More than just photos, I find music and food from the culture I explored but had to leave behind can be especially comforting.
  2. And the best method for avoiding reverse culture shock…
    Don’t go home!

Triathlon training generally involves six days of exercise—two days a week for each sport.  Over several months, even with the variation, the routine can become a bore.  This particular day was a cycling day, and it would turn out to be one of the most memorable of any, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual ride.

The purpose of the ride was speed, so there weren’t to be any tough climbs in the scenic mountains; only a dull flat out burn through small towns and rice fields.  The sun was baking.  For an hour or so, my partner and I sped along until at last I heard the words I was itching to hear.  “Let’s take a break.”

We were in Nantou County—central Taiwan.  It’s a fairly mountainous county, tea farms abound.  An offshoot of that industry, Pottery, is also popular in the area.

My partner said, “Let’s take a good long one.  I know a guy here you ought to meet.”

I agreed, and we rode a short distance of the main rode to a large house with a terracotta roof. A small workshop was off to the side.  My partner shouted out a greeting, and soon after a thin Taiwanese man with long curly hair popped his head out of the shop.  Right off, he looked like an artist.

He grinned and walked out to greet us.  Then he walked us into his studio.  It was filled to the brim with stylistic clay pots, tea kettles and cups, sculptures, and awards.  He started brewing tea.

“This is Liao Hsi-Li.  He is quite popular here in Taiwan.”

Hsi-Li spoke some English, but most of the conversation was translated.  We sat there, Hsi-Li smoked cigarettes, we drank tea and listened to him describe his craft.

For most of his adult life he’d made his living making and selling pottery.  He had gone to school for it, and established a reputation for his skill.  For a long time he worked his craft in the traditional Taiwanese style.  But seven or eight years ago he got bored.

“Traditionally, Pottery was a craft with practical purposes.  Here in Taiwan there were craftsmen doing the work, but it wasn’t art” he said.

He, and some others, began to experiment; mixing traditional methods with his own influences from life and modern art.  He started making art that you could use—“Practical art.”  The traditionalist thought he was wasting his time.

At first they belittled the effort, but over time they realized that Hsi-Li was not only skillful, but innovative too.  A “New Modern Pottery Art” trend began to spread.

His particular style involves using the old style keen and pure raw materials.  His most famous works are made from a mixture that he invented—he calls it “Paper Clay.”  And I am telling straight, from the look of it, you would think it was paper that had been crumbled up until it was cloth like, but to the touch it was as hard and sturdy as any I’ve come across.

“They thought this was a silly idea too,” he said, grinning as he pointed to his 2010 Taiwan Craft Competition award.  He came in first with his new style.  Some of his work is even on permanent display at the New Taipei City Ceramics Museum.

“Those same people are now teaching this technique in the art schools here,” he said.

Two hours later, as the impromptu studio tour was coming to an end, Hsi-Li handed me a small clay pot.  It was dark and round. The top handle was made from a bit of tree limp.  The sides of the pot had irregular indentions on either side.

“This is for you.  It’s made out of clay from Sun Moon Lake.”

And then he said something that has served as food –for-thought ever since.

He said,” You see these indentions.  Some people might see them as mistakes or flaws, but I put them there on purpose.  And you see this top.  It’s made from wood far up in the mountains.  It is the only one in the world with this shape.  Machines and factories can put out millions of perfect tea cups, but this piece is like us, you see, it’s unique.  It’s imperfect…but beautiful.”

Yeah, I like that.

We readied for the ride back, said thank you and goodbye, and Hsi-Li welcomed us to come back anytime.  His words and gift made for a quick and easy ride back and still serves as a reminder of the unexpected joys that lay and wait for you when you deviate from the set routine every now and again.

Good Journeys!

We were travelling Australia by four wheel drive – a trip which was the culmination of a dream I had had for many years, built upon the tales of a trip around Australia my father did back in his twenties.

Our steed was the legendarily rock solid Toyota Landcruiser 80 series – a vehicle which for many is the definitive off road companion. The challenge before us was to cross a river, the first body of water across a road we’d encountered in our trip so far.

Crossing a river is one of the riskiest endeavours possible in a four wheel drive. Water and engines don’t mix too well. And this being Australia’s Northern Territory, the water was likely to be filled with all sorts of deadly creatures, not least of which would be the saltwater crocodile, a fearsome man eating beast capable of growing to up to five metres in length.

Normally, one of the first things you’d do when pondering a river crossing would be to walk across the river and gauge the risk. In this case, being in croc infested territory, this wasn’t an option. Our only aid to the task before us was a little depth marker sitting in the water which indicated the river was 0.8 metres deep where the depth marker was. This wasn’t entirely reassuring.

At this point in our trip, our vehicle wasn’t fitted with a snorkel – a device which moves the air intake of the engine to a happy height just above the roof. If you’ve got water up to that point, you need more than a decent four wheel drive. Without a snorkel, 80 centimetres of water was the absolute maximum that we could risk driving through – any more and the engine might flood, with disastrous consequences.

Nor had we had the foresight to learn how to fit a “blind” – essentially a tarpaulin stretched across the front of the engine to help stop water from pouring in through the front vents. No – hugely prepared we were not. I had read a book on the subject of four wheel driving which had covered river crossings. Theory was about to become practice.

Our only alternative to crossing the river was a massive back track, back along the four wheel drive track we had just spent a couple of days driving through. The far side of the river was home to a main road, which could blast us up to Darwin in barely any time at all.

We couldn’t handle the thought of defeat and so we decided to press on.

I engaged the low gear ratio, and set the hand throttle to a steady pace. Using the accelerator in a river crossing isn’t usually advisable – a bump in the riverbed could cause your foot to slip with a potentially catastrophic loss of speed.

We nosed our way down the river bank and into the river. The water rose to the top of the tyres. We had already measured these as being seventy centimetres in height – we only had ten centimetres to play with. But we were committed now – no turning back.

The secret was to keep a steady pace, to stay just behind the “bow wave” that the vehicle created.

The engine fan, which we later learnt we should have disabled, was quickly immersed in the water. This resulted in water being sprayed out of the top of the bonnet. This was deeply unnerving stuff. And the river was at least twenty metres wide – we prayed there were no hidden holes.

The tension was nail biting. But our steed was more than up to the challenge. Her wheels bit the riverbed firmly, and she conveyed us with dignity. There were no hidden surprises, we didn’t meet any sleeping crocs, and we emerged at the far side, dripping and triumphant. Our first river crossing of many to come.

Shortly after this river crossing we fitted our vehicle with a snorkel and learnt how to fit a blind. We also adopted a new river crossing tactic – to wait until someone else gave it a go before heading in ourselves to get an idea of the depth and hidden risks ahead. Faced with the same challenge today, and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I’d still take the risk we took that day. But it was a hell of a ride.

About the author: Laurence is the author of Finding the Universe, a travel/photo blog detailing his ongoing journey, started in June 2009.

Unhurried, less concerned with material things, living in the moment, full of gratitude, easily satisfied.  This is the person I would like to be. I am a lot more like her when I’m traveling.

When I moved to Mexico, I sold off many of my possessions and stored those I kept, including two closets full of clothes, at my brother’s house.  I came to Guanajuato with a suitcase.  That was plenty.  When I have visited my brother’s house since then, I have stared into those closets and wondered why I ever acquired so many clothes.  Two years ago, I shoved some things into a day-pack and left Mexico for a trip to Central America.  When I got back to Guanajuato, I wondered why I had so many clothes there. I had lived for two months with only a few garments.  Why do I think I need more when I’m not on the move?

I posed this question once in a van full of travelers who were attending language school.  A woman who was far too young to be so wise answered, “It’s because here we know its temporary.  At home we think we’re going to live forever.”

She was right.  It’s not just a matter of material things.  It’s also about time.  One fall, a few years back I taught English in northeastern China. The city I lived in was big, cold, ugly.  But I loved every minute of it.  I would go for walks among careening traffic and piles of litter and I would think, “Cool! Drink it all in.  This is your year in China!”

It’s true.  I knew that my time in China was limited.  But my time on earth is limited too.  Why can’t I learn to treasure it the same way? Is there a way to bring this ‘travel mentality’ home?

Living as an expat has allowed me to move a little bit in that direction.  The last couple years or so I have enjoyed a remarkable sense of well-being.  I suspect there maybe a relationship between the fact that life seems so perfect right now and the fact that nothing in my life is really mine.

It has been four years now since I quit my job, ditched my house, sold off the bulk of my possessions and moved to Mexico to become a house-sitter.  When people come to visit me here, I paraphrase the Mexican saying and tell them, “Welcome.  Not my house, is not your house either.” Giving up my own home was not easy, and there are a few disadvantages to living in house which is not yours.  I cannot have pets, and the owner and I have a few differences of opinion regarding décor. (She likes rugs and mirrors.  I don’t.)  But the bottom line is, I get to live rent-free in a place I love.

I have a guy friend.  What we enjoy is both wonderful and exclusive, though I would not presume to call him my boyfriend.  There are no expectations about how long our relationship will last and no ambitions that it will evolve into anything other than what it is now.  Knowing this allows me to take pleasure in what I have without trying to change the little things which might bother me if I thought of him in a more permanent, partner role.

Two of the last four summers, my best friend from childhood has hired me as a nanny.

Her daughters are beautiful, fun, challenging and interesting.  I am not having the experience of being a parent, but I am an honorary aunt.  I have laughed and cried with those girls, been there as they learned to walk, talk, swim, read, and do cartwheels.  Even though we are not related, I know I am part of the family.

Home, partner, family. I don’t have any of them and yet I enjoy all of them.  Knowing that none of it belongs to me keeps things cast in a temporary light so that I remember to appreciate them.