Tag Archives: Travel

In Guatemala on the Wrong Bus

People standing in a shop to get out of the rain at a Guatemala bus station

Yes, yes, I like a good vacation as much as the next person. If you try to engage me in some dusty conversation about traveler v. tourist, I will roll my eyes and walk away muttering — an improvement over my previous vehement defense of tourists. Plus, we’re all tourists to the locals, insert swearing here.

But I hold a special place in my heart for disorganized, gritty, adventures, the sleep-deprived, culture-shocked displacement Pico Iyer’s career is built on describing, the mystery of simple things in places you don’t quite understand.

We ended up in a depressing but totally acceptable cave of a room with pea-green dishtowely things for curtains in the tiny windows that looked out on walls and a showerhead sprouting weird white cords that I hoped were not electrical although are there even other kinds of cords. It was probably $20 less than the Conquistador where, in an alternate universe, I was already chugging a beer in the shower. But it was clean and the door locked. I bought a beer. The lady overcharged me. I didn’t care at all but M. talked about it for days. I took a shower. It was cold. I didn’t care. We slept.

That’s why I’m enjoying this series by Sarah Miller on The Awl. In the first installment Miller explains how she’s off to Guatemala on a whim; the second (excerpted above) is about how she ends up traveling in exactly the way she does not want to.

Even while it’s not a trip I want to be on, I’m tagging along for the ride.

Read the story

Can You Return To a Place That Was Never Your Home?

Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)

Through marriage, I hold Austrian permanent residency. I’m in the coveted position of having a place to go should I decide my home country has become too apocalyptic. I can land in that Alpine nation with a clunky yet functional grasp of Austrian German, a string of in-laws to help me navigate, and full work credentials. Getting my residency status was, from a bureaucratic perspective, painless. I had been married for several years, my husband had a government job, and we went through our hearings — including updating an expired “green card” — in a small-town office with no lines.

Others don’t have it so easy. One winter I attended German classes with Bosnian war refugees and a few mail-order brides — one from Brazil, one from the Philippines, one from Cambodia. “My sister came first,” one of my classmates told me, “and her life was so much better here with her mailbox husband than it was doing laundry back in the Philippines, so I did the same.” (Not her exact words, we stumbled through with a mix of our classroom German and English.)

My refugee classmates were former engineers and social workers relegated to factory jobs because Austria didn’t recognize their education. I was a textbook picture of American exceptionalism. My education — an art degree — was irrelevant to employers because I was an American who’d worked for Microsoft. I got a job on a software team at Sony in Salzburg while my more qualified classmates stuck labels on yogurt containers at the dairy factory across the river. My classmates thought I was nuts. “Why are you even here,” they’d ask, incredulous, “when you can be in America?”

I did not like living in small-town Austria; I was ill-suited for its xenophobic (yet also very intrusive) society, and I pined for Vietnamese food and my weird friends. I wanted to want to live in Vienna, but the more visits I made to that city the more I could see how it would have worn me down — even while I knew I’d have lasted there longer than out in the little snow-globe where we lived. I went home. My travel credentials include “failed expat.”

All this is a long setup to say I have feelings about this piece at Catapult in which Grace Linden navigates the process of reclaiming her Austrian citizenship — something she has the right to do as the member of a family that was destroyed by the Nazis.

I don’t know if Leo ever found out what happened to his family; it took me weeks of online research. In the Yad Vashem database, I entered the information for Chaim (Karl) Izak Linadauer Zigellaub, my great-grandfather. He was deported on February 15, 1941 to Lublin, Poland, presumably to the Lublin Ghetto. If he didn’t die in the Ghetto, he would have most likely been transported to the Bełżec Concentration Camp where almost 500,000 Jews were murdered. There was just a single mention of his name on a deportation list; the space between the specifics and the unknowns is enormous. Brieche, his wife, and Ruth’s fates are unknown but almost certainly they were taken to Auschwitz. Improbably, Joseph made it to China where he died in the Shanghai Ghetto. It’s no wonder my grandfather forced time to carry him towards the future.

The compensation Linden seeks — the right to live in Austria — was one I did not work for and did not want. But part of me understand the desire for refuge, for options. And the irony of today’s Jewish Americans casting their eyes back on a nation that attempted to eliminate them — us — is not wasted on me.

Vienna is desperately longing for something it once was. As Alice Gregory wrote recently in T Magazine, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly preserved.” The pull of its history is inescapable. In my own family, I keep looking back for what was lost, only there is nothing left to grab a hold of.

Read the story

America’s Great Lake, or the Greatest Lake?

Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake. In the winter, it’s so cold you’ll only have a minute to recover from the shock, should you take a tumble into its freezing waters. At Outside, Stephanie Pearson explores the lake’s extreme history, expanse, diversity, and dangers. It’s the first time Pearson, a world traveler, has taken the time to get to know the natural wonder that is literally in her backyard.

Pukaskwa is the only wilderness-designated park in Ontario, an impressive distinction in a province that has about 1,000 polar bears, more than 250,000 lakes, and one person per square mile in its entire northwest region. With a single road in, surrounded by backcountry so dense that few people other than its original Anishinabek inhabitants have seen it, the park is a favorite of expert kayakers who paddle Pukaskwa’s raw coastline and backpackers who know they need at least ten days to hike the out-and-back 37-mile coastal trail.

That kind of toughness sums up the steely character of most folks who have lived along Lake Superior over the centuries—from the Ojibwe to the French voyageurs to Nordic immigrant fishermen.

Everyone except, perhaps, me. I can count on two hands the number of times I ventured off Lake Superior’s shoreline growing up in Duluth. In the winter, when the air temperature dropped below zero, steam would rise from the lake, shrouding the city in magical puffs of white. But on the dreariest days, the lake would reflect the lightless, bruised sky, so dark and heavy that I felt like it was crushing my spirit. My family didn’t have a boat big enough to safely navigate such a dangerous body of water. Its inaccessibility made Superior that much more mysterious—like a giant mood ring reflecting the temper of the universe. Even on the most benign summer days, its power was omni­present. Once, while landing my sister’s kayak on a rocky beach in five-foot waves, I capsized and hit my head. It made me wonder if the lake was a living entity, actively trying to kill me.

Read the story

The Tyranny of Free Time, or How to Be Bored In Fiji

a collection of travel posters advertising vacation destinations

Electric Literature published an excerpt of Mary Mann’s new book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. In this chapter about the origins, tensions, and limitations of tourism, she lays bare what most travelers are loathe to admit: it’s just as easy to be bored in Paris or on Bora Bora as it is at home.

What would I do if I had nowhere to be? Because I’ve been fortunate enough to travel aimlessly for a couple of months, I can tell you: I’d be irritable. Free time is daunting. The world has been shaped by our inability to deal with free time. Cook intended for tourism to pull us out of the mundane ordinary, and people who can’t travel (like Jamaica Kincaid’s tourist-hating locals) desire to do so for that reason. We travel to escape a losing battle with time — the autoworker Ben Hampers “war with that suf­focating minute hand” — but we still have to deal with time, by napping it away or filling it with sightseeing or traveling to the brighter past that travel ads promise. For the majority of us, free time has proved too unwieldy to manage without habits, and, from Ruskin’s “white lep­rosy” of hotels to the Banana Pancake Trail, the habits of travelers have reshaped the world.

Read the excerpt

The Lost Art of Getting Lost

Rope bridge, Ladakh, 1981

I have two pieces of major travel cred, neither particularly deserved. One is that I’ve been to all seven continents—in a turn of events I still don’t believe actually happened, a client sent me to Antarctica—and the other is that after traveling by train and hitchhiking, I walked over the Himalayas from Leh, in Ladakh, to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. When people ask me how I came to make that trip, my answer is absurdly naive. I could not, at the time, cross the Khyber Pass as I had wanted, so I did this instead. My motivation was based in complete idiocy; I was very young, and lucky me, I lived to tell the tale.

This was in 1982, and because it was pre-internet, I had no idea I was part of the wandering population exploring what had been called the Hippie Trail: the overland route traveled by free spirits in the 60s and 70s that “wound through Europe via Yugoslavia and Greece (with a possible island side-trip) to Istanbul…a typical path went to Ankara, then through Iran to Tehran, to Kabul in Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and Lahore in Pakistan, and then on to Kashmir, Delhi and Goa in India.”

Today, you can fall into a k-hole of photos from that era—I have a wooden box full of them myself—buses and trains full of backpackers armed with little more than a guide book and a few choice phrases. One could met a handful of Westerners, hang out for a few days, trade information, and go along your way.

My current nostalgia is not for the travels themselves, but for a time when this kind of travel was possible, when one could imagine the porousness of borders, disappearing and reappearing weeks later in a post office phone booth in New Delhi or Cairo trying to call home to let your family know you were fine, and also, still alive.

My absurd travel résumé is why I always have time for the similar sentiments from other voices of this rootless era, and to understand their grief for its loss. Every era is a golden age of travel to those traveling in it. In the Financial Times, Charlie English delivers a eulogy for a geographic freedom that is now in short supply.

Everything was fine, of course: as foreign correspondents say, it always is until something happens. Without exception, the people I met were glad to see me, since I represented the outside world, which, Timbuktiens felt, had forgotten them. The famous little caravan town has always loved visitors, and until recently they were a considerable source of income. The highlight of the tourist season in the 2000s was the Festival in the Desert, a showcase of Malian and international music organised by Manny Ansar. Eight or nine hundred foreigners would come, Ansar told me, and spend money all over town: “They paid for travel, they paid in the restaurants, they paid for souvenirs, they rented camels, tents.” But the violence in the desert put a stop to that, and by the time of my visit Timbuktu was filled with unemployed tour guides, empty hotels, and its famous manuscript libraries were shut.

Read the story (paywalled)

A Trip to Syria, Remembered

Billboard of Palmyra ruins, Syria, 2005

My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why.

Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil.

They read from Rumi in study groups and pointed out that this archway or this winding street was pre-Ottoman. I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syrian lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam. I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me and the truly hardcore.

In 2007, David Zoby bluffed his way into a slot on — what — it’s not exactly clear. An academic tour of Syria, complete with lectures and visits to the requisite historic sites, Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, of course. He remembers the journey in “Some Vague Stars to the South” on Nowhere.

Zoby’s memories aren’t an idealized view of the past.They’re a tangle of displacement created by his status on the trip, denial of his Syrian heritage, and that feeling of being in a place so far from home. It’s hard to read this piece without wondering when Syria will again be the kind of place travelers can go to get away from themselves.

Read the story

‘I felt dirty, a lesser person somehow than when I had left a week before.’

Rafia Zakaria᾿s essay in The Baffler on flying while Muslim is an important read that exposes a long list of things that most white, non-Muslim Americans never have to think about while traveling — what language they’re speaking, what books they’re reading, or who’s sending them text messages.

After landing in Boston, I put away my book and took out my customs form and my passport, my courage and my patience. As our herd of hopeful entrants was separated—as it always is between U.S. passport holders and Legal Permanent Residents, and the lesser “everyone else”—I reminded myself that I was the less vulnerable. The white and real American couple in front of me considered their dinner options. I sweated and deleted all the texts from my family members, every one of them having a Muslim name.

Read the essay

Pittsburgh, Listed

Pittsburgh and the Duquense Incline

You know the drill — your city is included on some top ten destinations list and you can’t resist. You click through and the Space Needle is touted as a can’t miss site as opposed to home to a dated museum with a view that might be worth it if the day is clear, but you could just go to …

Plus, the character is all wrong.

In Pittsburgh’s City Paper, Alex Gordon surveys 150 years of writing about his city and whether or not this type of boosterish frivolity helps the city’s residents — specifically people of color.

In 2014, Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Very Smart Brothas, penned an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, “Oblivious: Black people love Pittsburgh, too, but can’t help but wonder how much Pittsburgh loves them.” In it, Young expressed his ambivalence about the growing trend of Pittsburgh praise.

“Even as we boast about living in America’s ‘Most Livable’ or ‘Most Welcoming’ city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us,” he wrote. “This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex.”

There’s also mention of a WPA project that ended up on the cutting room floor:

“The Negro in Pittsburgh” is not travel writing, but it includes one component that is routinely omitted from travel writing: the perspective of residents in their own words. The final chapter, “The People Speak,” offers a fascinating insight into what life was like for black Pittsburghers in the 1930s.

While it wasn’t published at the time — the FWP was shut down before the piece was completed — it’s pretty remarkable to consider a government project that documents the brazen inequality of an American city.

I still kind of want to go to Pittsburgh, preferably with a thoughtful local guide.

Read the story

Themed for Success

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”

At Eater, journalist Emily Yoshida hits some of Tokyo’s absurd, popular tourist attractions trying to understand specifically what themed destinations offer and why they’re so popular. Her answer? I don’t remember. I got stuck on the part about the owl selfie.

Read the story

The Boundless Possibility and Boundless Boredom of the Open Road

The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.

After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.

These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.

Read the essay