Tag Archives: Travel

Innocence Abroad

US passport pages with visa stamps

Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.

At The Guardian, Suzy Hansen considers American identity, partly through the lens of race, partly from the perspective she gained living abroad.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.

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Lobster Shells in the Fountain and Other Hotel Mysteries

Hotel Imperial, Vienna

I’ve experienced excessive hotel luxury exactly one time, at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, where I landed the lowest quality room at this self-described six-star hotel. The lowest quality room at the Imperial, with its heated marble floors, lush upholstery, and view down the Ringstrasse remains the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.

At breakfast the next day, the 70-something Viennese couple directly behind my husband began to speculate (in their Viennese German) how such sweater-and-jean-wearing riff-raff could afford to stay at the hotel. My Austrian husband smirked all through our meal, whispering “I’ll tell you later.” They’d decided we were Canadian oil money; we simply could not be Americans given our economy at the time. I still regret that he did not wish them a very good morning in his own distinctive Austrian accent upon their departure.

During our stay, the hotel staff were nothing but sunshine and discretion. As we prepared to leave the hotel, the lobby butler asked if we needed luggage retrieved from our room. We were carrying day packs only; our car was parked at a cousin’s house in a Vienna suburb. “No thanks,” I said, “this is all we’ve got.”

“That happens here too.” The butler shrugged and offered what appeared to be a genuine smile before wishing us safe journeys. Our status seemed of no concern to him, only our needs and that we felt welcome.

I could not do his job; I am too judge-y and can’t keep it to myself. I have more in common with those well-dressed Viennese seniors than they’d suspect. I am impressed by those who can pull off service work in a way that’s unobtrusive and helpful at the same time.

At Bloomberg, Brandon Presser joins the staff at another grand hotel, The Plaza New York, to see what it’s like to wear the white gloves. The requests are as silly and outlandish as you’d think. The discretion? Well, they don’t name names, until they do. (Spoiler alert: It’s Charlie Sheen.)

Over my short tenure, I delivered laundry to Middle Eastern princesses and fetched lobsters out of wishing wells—and listened to colleagues delight in the oddities of their jobs, from fielding requests for Viagra or comforting a weeping woman over spilled blueberries. Serving the world’s rich and famous, it turns out, plumbs the depths of an alternative universe that readily embraces the absurd without even batting an eye. And that was only the beginning of what I learned.

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In Foreign Territory, Wondering: Who is the Alpha Monkey?

Leigh Shulman | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (4,962 words)

 

Still breathless from dragging our heavy bag down the hill and through the mud, I never expected to be turned away on arrival. “No children allowed here,” he tells me.

“But Rafael,” I explain after introductions, “Monica knows we’re coming. Por favor ask her.”

What Rafael doesn’t tell me is that Monica, the owner of this magnificent animal sanctuary in the middle-of-nowhere jungle, left two days earlier for La Paz to tend to her sick father. She neglected to inform anyone that my nine-year-old daughter Lila and I would be landing on their doorstep. It’s a 20 km walk to the nearest town and no more buses for the day. How did I get us into this mess?

Thirty-six hours earlier, we locked the door of our house in Argentina, cabbed to the terminal and hopped a late bus headed for Bolivia. Lila snuggled against my shoulder, attempting to sleep through her excitement over our first night away. The driver rolled to a halt in every tiny dirt-pathed town, belching passengers into the cool Andean night. We touched the border before dawn.

Four hours and two passport stamps later, an unrelenting Bolivian sun burned our skin as we breakfasted on buttery rolls and coffee.

“How long is the next ride?” my little one asked.

“Twenty hours from here to La Paz.”
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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