What Was Your Favorite Thing?

Today marks four weeks since we’ve been home. The recent lack of posts might suggest we’ve fallen off the face of the Earth, but actually we’ve been continuing to travel. Two days after flying from Reykjavik to Washington, D.C., we were back in the air again. We spent Columbus Day weekend in St. Louis, attending my cousin’s wedding. It was our first time in Missouri, so we did a bit of sightseeing, too: we visited the St. Louis  Art Museum and the St. Louis Zoo. Both were great.

Penguins, St. Louis Zoo

Because we haven't seen enough penguins yet..

Then we came back to DC, spent one more day, and headed down to Richmond for two days before going to Charlottesville, VA, for another wedding. Within ten days of returning home, we had already seen most of our family and friends.

 

It’s been fun to see all the people we missed so much, but it can be hard to answer “The Questions.” You know the ones: “Where did you go?” “What was your favorite thing?” “What are you going to do now?”

As for the first one, I just refer people to this blog. The third one is deceptively simple: Find a job. A few people continue to ask, “Doing what?” But most people seem content to leave it at that, which is good, because I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t believe this is the kind of economic climate where I can afford to be too picky. I want to do something international, and DC has got heaps of options in that department, so I know I’ll find something I like.

The second question is the one that really gets me. I want to give a short, snappy answer, but the truth is I just don’t have a favorite thing. I can’t even name a couple of favorite things. We used to get this question on the road as well. On meeting us and hearing we’d been traveling the world, our new friends (usually couchsurfing hosts) would invariably ask us where our favorite place was. Our policy was to always name the country we were in at that very moment. This often worked, but now that we’re home, it doesn’t. So what to say?

I can name a couple of countries that were particularly special to me—but the reasons varied. I loved Myanmar because the people we met were so friendly and kind, but that depends on who you meet. I find China endlessly fascinating and have read a lot about it, so I was predisposed to like it. But five years ago, on my first trip there, I hated it. China didn’t change that much—I did. I thought New Zealand and Iceland had the most spectacular scenery, but that’s probably because I’m from the East Coast of the US and am not used to seeing volcanic landscapes. We had an all-around great time in Spain, aided by Bob’s excellent Spanish skills. Someone who did not speak Spanish would have a completely different experience. What I’m trying to say is, your mileage may vary.

Iceland, wow

And if you were used to seeing this, the East Coast might be fascinating

Much depends on your previous experiences: where you’ve been before, what you’ve read, seen pictures of, or heard about. I think of each experience as building on the previous; not as a collection of separate activities. Studying ancient China made visiting Xi’an much more interesting. Seeing the Hindu temple of Prambanan primed me for visiting Angkor Wat. Conversely, after visiting several well-curated European palaces, the Palais du Papes was a bit of a letdown. But we met a Canadian guy (who had not traveled much before) who loved it.

A word about expectations: some of the most fabulous places we visited were the ones we had done no planning for. And I think that had a lot to do with it. We didn’t have a chance to raise our expectations too high. On the other hand, I hate arriving in a place and knowing nothing about it; so it’s a fine line.

It works the other way too. While there certainly were some places I disliked more than others, it depended on several different factors. Most places are, to some extent, interesting; but not always to every person at every stage in their lives. Lijiang, China, would’ve been a charming little city if it hadn’t been so crowded. I don’t have very fond memories of Airlie Beach, Australia, because it rained the whole time we were there. And to me, Salzburg just wasn’t that great. This is completely unfair, of course. Any of those places might be someone else’s favorite spot. But neither one of us is right or wrong. And after looking back on my pictures, I noticed something funny. The brain has a convenient way of forgetting unpleasant experiences, and my impressions of some places have changed for the better. If I can’t trust my perception on what’s good and what’s not, no one else should either. It’s more important to travel to the places you’re interested in. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t like something. I’ve read the book “1000 Places To See Before You Die,” and I respectfully disagree with some of their choices, because the authors, like every other human on earth, are biased.

So no; I can’t say where my favorite place was. It’s all too subjective. If you’re dying to know what I liked and disliked, please ask, but it’s easier for me to choose my favorite spots by country and category (which I have kind of tried to do, through the “Three Favorite Things” posts.) But forget about my favorite things: what are yours?

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It is important to travel when you are young…

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“It is important to travel when you are young: you travel light and cheap, and your heart is like a sponge. The paths across the world make up a school which tempers the character and reinforce tolerance and solidarity. You learn to give and to take, to keep the doors open in the house of spirits and above all to share. You learn to enjoy small things, to value what you have, to be happy in the times of scarcity and celebrate abundance. You learn to listen, to watch, and to love.”

–Ana Briongos, Black on Black

Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad

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In Sydney, we stayed in a six-bed dorm room with another American and two Germans, which prompted one of the Germans to declare, “I’ve never seen so many Americans in one room.” In Indonesia, the only other Americans I met in three weeks were a couple on vacation in Bali. It’s true. Not many Americans travel abroad.

That story, by CNN, lays out four main reasons Americans don’t travel: not enough time off work, the high price, our own cultural and geographic diversity, and our fear and/or misconceptions about the world beyond our borders. It’s true that we don’t get as much time off work as citizens of many European countries, for example. And taking “gap years” is generally not done. (That’s a topic for another post.) Our geography is extremely diverse; whereas a Singaporean wanting to go skiing over the winter holidays has no choice but to leave the country, we can just fly to Colorado. And yes, it’s expensive to cross the Atlantic or Pacific (although low-cost carriers are trying to break into the Pacific market, so watch that one.)

In my opinion, our cultural diversity probably leads more people to travel, not fewer. Let’s be honest: most of us hang out with people who look pretty much like ourselves. This prevents most of us from truly learning about another culture. And even if you do have lots of friends from many different backgrounds, it’s probably impossible to have friends from everywhere in the world. In the article, one guy mentions that since he lives in LA, he can visit one of many ethnic neighborhoods for a cultural experience. He theorizes that for some people, that may be a substitute for travel. I disagree. While residents of many cities can visit their local Chinatown or eat at a Spanish or Thai restaurant, I don’t think anybody comes away from that experience thinking “Okay, I don’t have to go to China/ Spain/ Thailand now,” unless it was a bad experience! Usually those are the kind of experiences that pique one’s interest- trying a new cuisine, witnessing a festival, making friends with someone who was born in foreign country. My trip to Thailand five years ago can be directly attributed, in part, to the fact that I had tried and enjoyed Thai food in Virginia. Being able to try things out at home before traveling abroad is a great resource we Americans have.

I think that the number one obstacle to international travel is fear, skepticism, misconceptions, ignorance- whatever you want to call it. It’s in our own heads. We’re afraid that we’ll be misunderstood, ripped off, mugged, or worse. We don’t want to get hurt or sick. We’re skeptical of the benefits of international travel, or we’ve heard that the locals don’t like Americans. And we’re ignorant of countries and cultures themselves- we’re just not very internationalized, compared to most people I’ve met overseas. It’s partially a media problem. While the Japanese watch Desperate Housewives and the Indonesian high school girls I met absolutely adore Twilight, the converse doesn’t happen to us: we don’t get very many foreign movies and TV shows, and the news on foreign countries tends to be much less than favorable. This leads us to think destinations are dangerous or scary, without ever having seen the human side. It’s partially a school curriculum problem- we don’t emphasize foreign language learning or classes on comparative cultures. And it’s a self-perpetuating problem: if my friends and family didn’t travel, it would be very hard for me to go against the grain and go abroad. Unfortunately for us, we are rather isolated geographically, but that’s no reason to put up barriers in our own minds.

Luckily, there’s a cure, even if you don’t currently have the time or money to travel abroad (or think you don’t.) Take all your vacation days- you earned them, and plenty of studies show that taking time off boosts productivity. If it’s just a money issue, try looking at other destinations. In the comments section for that article, lots of people complained about the high cost of European vacations. Central and South America and much of Asia are very good value- it’s much cheaper here in Asia than staying home. If you find yourself thinking that travel outside the US (especially in countries less developed than the US) is too scary, think again. Most places, in fact everywhere I’ve ever been, are not as bad as most people think. Jakarta and Manila have a fairly dangerous, slummy image in the American media, but both are developed, world-class cities with air-conditioned shopping malls and English newspapers, and most residents do not live in slums. You’re probably just as likely to get hurt or sick as you are at home, and a lot less likely to get mugged than in most American cities. And actually, most people do like Americans. Many don’t like our government constantly meddling in their business- but people are very good at separating the American public and the government, and don’t blame us for their actions.

The cure is knowledge. Read, read, read- but try something other than the news once in a while. Blogs and novels offer different viewpoints. Embrace the cultural diversity we have on our own soil. Educate yourself. Even if the number of Americans with passports remains low, we don’t have to be so misguided when it comes to foreign travel.

An Accidental Itinerary

I read some travel advice before departing on our trip that suggested creating an itinerary by keeping an eye on language barriers and infrastructure. The idea is that, being from the US (or from any other Westernised, developed country) we are generally used to having good infrastructure and being able to communicate in English. So when deciding what order you’d like to go to a list of countries, it might be better to ease into it, and hit some countries similar to your own first; then go somewhere wildly different from what you’re used to. Since living abroad in Japan and having travelled to different countries in Asia, I figured we would be fine and didn’t factor in that advice when creating the itinerary. But it seems that we’ve done just that- and I’ve also noticed another thing. First, we’re starting by visiting countries that are culturally very similar to the U.S. Then, we’ll go to Asia- a place we are reasonably comfortable with, after having spent three years there. Next we’ll hit Russia and Europe- places that are fairly unknown to us, but we know at least there is some good infrastructure for travellers (in some cases, great.) We’ve left the cultural opposites/ complete unknowns for last- Middle East, Africa- but by then we’ll be salty travellers, ready for any challenges.

Accidentally, we ended up creating an interesting juxtaposition in our itinerary by following Hawaii with New Zealand. These two places form two corners of the Polynesian triangle (the third corner is Rapa Nui, a.k.a. Easter Island) that encompasses the entire area that was settled by ancient people who, I suppose, got bored of Indonesia and New Guinea so they hopped onto boats and sailed to faraway islands. (Okay, it probably wasn’t out of boredom, but that’s not important for this blog post.) New Zealand is called Aotearoa on this map: that’s the Maori name for NZ, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

The Polynesian Triangle

The corners have something in common in that they were the last Polynesian islands to be settled. They have something else in common, too- all were taken over by invaders from other countries. The native Hawaiian presence in Hawaii, to me, was barely noticeable- only the commercialised, touristy aspects (i.e. paying $75 to go to a luau. Then again, we only went to O’ahu which is the most commercialised island.) The Maori presence in New Zealand is much stronger, particularly in the North Island. The same touristy stuff still exists- here you can pay NZ$75 to go to a hangi. We don’t have that kind of money to spend on one night’s meal and entertainment, and we probably wouldn’t go anyway. I find it unnecessary, because the culture is still alive and there are opportunities to experience the living Maori culture, not the romanticised one of the past. The Maori are fascinating to me because first of all, the culture is interesting, and also because their resistance efforts against the Europeans were at least somewhat successful- much less so than American and Canadian Indians or Australian Aborigines. In another juxtaposition, it will be interesting to visit Australia next, and learn about Aboriginal culture.