A Dog-Eared Page: Travels with Myself and Another

You know the feeling: you discover a new writer, you devour their work and wonder how can it be that in all your reading you’ve never come across them before. You fight the urge to feel gypped and take comfort in the fact that you’ve seen the light and found a kindred spirit. You finish the book, favorite quotes/passages underlined, and add the book to a shelf of “can’t live without” books.

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The More Things Change

I’m afraid it’s finally happened.

I have crossed over to the age where you cling to nostalgia and wonder about those halcyon days when life was simpler. A time when we played outdoors until the street lights came on, beckoning us home to dinner. I fear the technological advances we’re now accustomed to have dulled our senses to our natural surroundings. It’s true this happens to all generations, my parents often regaled us with stories of an idyllic childhood similar to the Leave it to Beaver culture of the 50s (confession: I adore this time period of Americana) when we would dare to play Colecovision on a sunny 70 degree day in Southern California.

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Lessons Learned

I know, I know. Lessons Learned? Really?

Allow me to extend a sincere apology for the prosaic title, but despite wracking my brain for an ‘oh, so clever’ title I’m coming up empty-handed.

But looking back at the week and what I’ve accomplished thus far, I’m excited at what the 30 Days of Indie Travel Project has given me – a desire to write even when I feel like I have nothing to say. It’s broken through my preconceived notion of how creativity flows and has allowed me to simply write (NB: although I would still like to acknowledge that sometimes creativity can be an otherworldly force that reveals itself to the writer/artist/musician/etc.).

So here’s to pure, unadulterated writing…

Day 8: Love Learning

Travel and learning go hand in hand. Travel teaches us not only about the world and the people in it, but also more about ourselves and our own ideas and values. What has travel taught you this year?

The beauty of travel is that it’s impact can be felt long after you’ve come home, unpacked your bag and resumed your daily life. Sure you learn things along the way like “Wow, those 7 semesters of college French paid off!” or “So that’s what Napoleon’s horse looks like stuffed.” and most importantly, “No matter how many times I eat a Filet o’ Fish and an ice cream sundae, I will get sick.” But over the years I’ve found it’s what you learn about yourself in the process that imprints the travel experience permanently on your life.

This year has been no exception. Although, I will admit I have [in years past] felt that true lessons and life-changing moments could only occur with international travel. It’s as though getting out of your daily life and immersing yourself in a drastically different culture, language and time zone is more life-altering than hitting the road and traveling to Orange County, California (and I say that as not to offend, I grew up there, so I get a hall pass). However, I am happy to report I was incorrect and that the teachings of travel can strike whenever and wherever they want. As long as you have an open heart and mind.

This past summer as I was conquering fear in the rugged terrain of the White Mountains, staring out over the Great Gulf Wilderness I felt the seismic shift in self-awareness, a sensation previously reserved for international trips. It was a sense of peace and awe over what spread out before me, hundreds of miles of forest, blanketing the canyon like little broccoli florets. It was in that moment I knew what truly made me happy.

Nature.

Yes, I work in New York City and love the energy the city emits. I also love how it attracts individuals from all walks of life. I’ve always felt that there are a million and one different personality types in the city and no matter who you are or what you’re interested in, you can find a compadre. However, I never truly feel at home there. But when I’m in the mountains or bobbing in the surf, everything is as it should be. Only months later, as I was reading “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” that I better understood what I was experiencing.

The naturalist E.O. Wilson gave a name to this warm, fuzzy feeling I was experiencing: biophilia. He defined it as “the innately, emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

Over drinks recently, I explained my epiphany to my friend (and fellow NH hiker). He gave me a knowing look and silently nodded in agreement. He knew exactly how I felt. While we had both crossed the ridge at different points, a shared love of nature and those moments of vitality is what we both took away from the mountain.

Reading and Writing with Hemingway

I consider myself a well-read girl — one who voraciously devours books and was in love with the Scholastic Book Club newsletters that my elementary school teacher would faithfully distribute each month. I can remember bringing it home and sitting with my mother and asking her for more books than was humanly possible to read in a one month period (not to mention it would have cost more than my family’s budget would probably allow).

As I get older, finding time to devote to a book is more difficult. I find myself stealing bits of time during my commute when I should be working or in that 15-minute window before the lure of sleep and the comfort of down makes it impossible for my eyes to stay open. But reading is still a passion and one that I find goes hand in hand with writing, for, as many writing instructors have told me over the years, in order to write well you must read a lot.

And I find I can’t wait to get my hands on a new book – hence the growing list of books to read in my iPhone notes. They range from current works of fiction (most recently with “The Help” and “The Imperfectionists“) to travel and/or adventure-disaster memoirs of the “Touching the Void“-variety. Which brings me to my most recent read, “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway.  It was the first time, in a long time, when a book had me so thoroughly engrossed that I spent a large chunk of a Saturday afternoon in my backyard, savoring each chapter and the Parisian escapism.

Hemingway had such a distinct style of prose – one that is often described as simple and succinct  – and I felt as though I was reading his journal and gleaning insights into 1920s Parisian life and “la generation perdue” (or “The Lost Generation” for the non-French speaker) — the idea of what it means to be a writer, struggling to make ends meet in a foreign city and how life with creative souls, like Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald, could go from ordinary to extraordinary in a matter of minutes all while having an aperitif  at La Closerie des Lilas.

As someone with writerly aspirations, I’m in awe of his craft. His ability to tell a story is one in which I hope to master some day. And it’s not just his writing ability, it’s how he lived a vibrant life — one where he ate and drank exceptionally well and where money (or a lack thereof) didn’t affect his ability to truly experience life in the City of Lights.

Part travel memoir, part writing guide and part love letter to the city of Paris and his first wife, Hadley – “A Moveable Feast” truly is just that, a delectable read that explores the creative bounty Paris reveals for those who choose to stay awhile.

Traveling without Moving

My Saturday morning ritual is pretty much always the same: get up, start the coffee, feed Lulu (my sweet, little pug) and take her outside, where strewn across the driveway in blue plastic wrap is my weekend New York Times. To me, the newspaper is a time-honored weekend tradition, one that takes me back to being a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons while my dad faithfully read The Los Angeles Times over a bowl of Grape Nuts and a glass of Minute Maid OJ.

So here I sit, nearly 30 years later, cultivating my own morning ritual some 3,000 miles away. But instead of starting with the front page (as my pappy so often does), I instinctively sort through the pages and pull out my two favorite sections — Book Review and Travel. The fact that they’re conveniently bundled together week after week makes me feel like its kismet. Or, as is more likely the case, random chance since the weekend paper is split between Saturday and Sunday for us home delivery types.

This past weekend, I felt giddy as I discovered it was time for the annual Summer Book Review. Skimming the pages to find what books to add to my ever-growing list, I was delighted to find a large portion devoted to travel books – volumes, memoirs and travelogues from the likes of Paul Theroux and Elisabeth Eaves.

As I read the reviews, it stirred my wanderlust in a way that I hadn’t felt in a while (my need to suppress this desire to achieve some financial goals had been widely successful until this point in time). But as I read through each review, I longed to pack my backpack, grab my Moleskine and hit the road. I wanted to find myself in an unfamiliar place, navigating the streets with a tiny guide-book map in hand, all the while attempting to decipher a foreign language or calculate an exchange rate (albeit unsuccessfully as this skill somehow eludes after all these years) and just being open to the kindness of strangers, a new culture and learning something new about myself and what it means to truly be alive and present in a moment. The intangible souvenirs that make travel a gift.

But while I long to “throw off the bowlines” as Mark Twain famously said, I don’t feel like I’m missing out by staying put. I know the decisions I’ve made now will allow me to travel to my heart’s content down the road. For now, I will be content with my armchair travels and be eternally grateful for those writers who produce stunning literary works that allow me to travel the world without leaving home.

Why travel?

Rick Steves.

I don’t know about you, but for me his name conjures up European adventures and PBS telethons. He was my first exposure to the travel industry and the possibility that you could travel the world, share your experiences with others and make a living from it. In fact, I think I applied for a job with Rick Steves’ company when I graduated from college, but let’s save that for another day.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year at The New York Times Travel Show when I stumbled upon Rick’s name during the Saturday sessions. I was beyond ecstatic. Not only was Rick Steves going to be there in the flesh(!), but he was speaking at a seminar entitled: “Travel as a Political Act.” Not a topic I would have expected from Rick Steves, the man who had shown us all the tips and tricks of traveling through European history, but a topic for which he displayed such incredible passion and humor in delivering, his book, was added to my ever-growing “Books to Read” list.

The essential premise behind Rick’s talk and book is that travel allows us to get beyond any fear or prejudice we may have and gives us a true perspective on the humanity of a people, a place and culture. Part travel memoir of places he’s visited and part “how to” for those interested in taking this approach to travel, the book uses the backdrop of Europe for the majority of his examples, from traveling through the former Yugoslavia and how the remnants of the ethnic conflicts shape the outlook of the people who call the country home to the European approach to socialism (for example, he calls the Danes “highly taxed and highly content”) and of course, The Netherland’s tolerant policy towards recreational drug use.

The most interesting chapters were those he spent in El Salvador and Iran. Here the reader really gets to see firsthand how Rick Steves approaches traveling, overcoming any preconceived notions of a place along the way.These chapters include detailed study of the history of each place and how his time in these countries helps him expand his worldview to make him a more compassionate human being. The lessons in the book are too numerous to list here, nor would I want to spoil the surprise of uncovering these kernels of truth for anyone interested in reading the book. Suffice it to say, my Kindle version of the book has underlines and notes littered throughout.

As I wound my way toward the end of Rick’s tale, it made me think about my own travels. Places I’ve wanted to travel to and those travel opportunities that presented themselves (namely business trips that were required). It has reconfirmed my belief that each country and people have its own story to tell and for those lucky travelers who find themselves open to the experience, they will be rewarded with a souvenir that moves beyond the tchotchke that sits on the dresser and is one that is indelibly imprinted on their soul.

Give Me the World

“We saw it and thought, this is Erin.”

Studying the book jacket in my hand, the crisp, block letters set against a recognizable image of a Chinese junk ship, I was intrigued. Turning it over in my hands, I was amazed that my friends were so adamantly certain that this was the book that epitomized me. I’ll admit I was dubious of their self-assuredness, but before I could utter a word of gratitude, voices began piping up around me:

“What kind of book is it?”

“What it is about?”

“Read the back cover!”

Pausing to collect my thoughts, my eyes settled onto the text:

In 1951, at the age of twenty-five, Leila Hadley, bored with her New York PR job, buys two tickets aboard a cargo ship headed for Hong Kong; one for herself and one for her six-year-old son Kippy. This decision sets her life on an entirely new course. After stops in Manila, Hong Kong and Bangkok, their travels take an unexpected turn when she meets four young men sailing their boat around the world, and convinces them to let her and Kippy join them.

In this lush and richly evocative travel narrative, Hadley offers sensual descriptions of the places she visits, lively accounts of the people and traditions, and a taste of the spontaneous joys of a life lived fully in the present. It is not only the luminous vitality of her prose that makes this travelogue such a pleasure to read, but the courage of her decision to toss expectations to the wind and embrace all the adventures the world has to offer – an inspiration to the adventurer that lurks within us all.

It was the best 30th birthday present a girl could ask for, even if she didn’t know it existed before that very moment.

In reading that back cover I felt connected to Miss Hadley in a way that went beyond adulation or, let’s face it, envy. Maybe it was the parallel of our lives, for I too work in PR and would love to have the temerity to cast my NY life aside and set sail for the Far East, minus the kid of course (being single and sans wee one). But alas, an even temperament and a life I loved kept me firmly rooted in my tiny Upper East Side apartment.

Four years later and this book has held a prominent place on my book shelf and in my memory (score one for my omniscient friends Rob and Taryn Phelan). Although my desire to travel and explore the world beyond my doorstep is still a dream that has yet to be realized.

Until now.

While I won’t be selling all my earthly possessions and hopping a boat/plane/train/automobile (yet), my goal with this blog is to write about my love of travel: what I see, where I go and how immersing yourself into a new place, people and culture can give you not only those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but afterward, once you’ve returned home, you find you are forever changed. The experience has left an indelible imprint on your soul and you find you have a more open, compassionate worldview. And since I’m a sucker for a good quote and let’s face it, Mark Twain is kind of brilliant, I’ll leave you with his thoughts on the subject:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Innocents Abroad

Couldn’t have said it better myself.