Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Top Fives

Canal de Pangalanes, Madagascar (MK)

Rie tells me that when I get back to the USA in a few days, people will ask me which place--out of all the places we went this year--I liked the best. I can’t begin to answer that. I loved many places for many reasons, and I often felt that the most amazing thing was that we were getting to make this trip at all. 

But thinking about that question brought a flood of great experiences to mind. I know that when I get home, it’s going to be hard for me not to rattle on and on and on about the trip to anyone who will listen—and equally hard to zero in on the key moments. So here’s a first stab at that:

Five Great Days

With Annie in Mendoza. (MK)
  • The day Miguel took me to his hometown, the tiny village of Inguilpata, Peru. I felt privileged to be invited briefly into a way of life so different from my own.
  • Any day on our five-day wilderness hike in southern Chile. My fit, athletic big sister does stuff like this—I don’t. On this trek I discovered that actually I could too.
  • Our bicycle tour around the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina with my daughter and Rie’s younger son. I can’t believe I never wrote about this outing—it was pure fun in excellent company.
  • Our pirogue tour along the Canal de Pangalanes in Madagascar. Though we got off on the wrong foot with our guide, we ended up having a blissful day with zero travel stress.
  • Day One of a three-day trip to some remote villages in northern Mozambique. Volunteering at Manda Wilderness gave me the rare chance to do meaningful work in stunning surroundings—and sitting on the sand watching the sun go down, I was very grateful for that.

Five Memorable Meals

Honorable Mention--the indoor asado at our hostel in El Bolsón, Argentina, where Claudio (the chef) laid the food on the table and said, "Attack!" (KK)

  • Potato soup, guinea pig haunches, and sweet, strong coffee at the Aristas’ home in Inguilpata, Peru. Everything we ate was grown or raised right on their hillside patch of land—and boy, was it good!
  • Minced beef and olive empanadas at Bar Britanico, a decades-old wood-and-brass neighborhood café in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. While I ate, I watched lovers woo and old men drink coffee and argue about politics.
  • The lovely brunch in Somerset West, South Africa with Mariette DuPlessis, who had loaned us her family’s home in Hermanus for a week. For dessert, she gave us melktert (custard pie) and koeksisters (twisted, syrup-covered doughnuts), foods that till then I’d only read about in novels.
  • Any one of many dinners that ended with Nkwichi pudding—a simple tangy-lemon dessert with a crushed cookie crust—at a torch lit table on the beach in Mozambique, with the sky over Lake Malawi black and full of stars.
  • My budget-friendly comfort food routine in Chiang Mai, Thailand: stir-fried big noodles with chicken and veggies from one night-time street stall and a banana pancake from the next stall over. I’d hand each vendor one of the empty steel dishes from my tiffin carrier, then sit between the stalls on a plastic stool, people-watching until the dishes came back full.

Five Crummy Moments

It was called the Hotel Great Value--really! (MK)

  • Heading across the bridge from Ecuador to Peru, having already been stamped out of Ecuador, and discovering that we couldn’t legally enter Peru.
  • Standing at an ATM in Dehradun, India, low on cash, having just put my card into the machine, when the power suddenly failed, the screen went blank and the card was gone.
  • Sitting in a Dehradun hotel room after changing rooms once already because the door of the first room didn’t lock, and hearing a crash. It turned out the bathroom ceiling had collapsed and the tub was now full of drywall pieces and gypsum dust.
  • Riding exhausted in the front seat of a mini-bus in Mozambique, hearing a thwap! and knowing, just knowing, that my computer bag had flown out onto the highway through the faulty back door. It had.
  • Later that same day—having retrieved the bag from the highway and declined to let the chapa conductor put it back under a big dead catfish in the back of the van—walking into one of the trip’s nicer hotels gritty with dust, stinking of sweat, with fish scales clinging to what once was a respectable looking piece of luggage.

Five Things I Wish I’d Done Differently

But people speak English all over the world, don't they? (Andasibe, Madagascar, KK)

  • Planned ahead more. We read a lot about South America ahead of time and we figured we’d read about subsequent places while we traveled. What we didn’t realize was that when you’re in a new place, you want to BE in that place—and that it takes a lot of mental energy to find your way around, learn bits of a new language, see and do and eat new things. We didn’t have the headspace to read much about Africa and Asia before we went there, and that was a shame.
  • Brought a better camera. I had a cheap point-and-shoot and when I ruined it in the rain on Lake Titicaca, I bought another cheap point-and-shoot. Yes, it’s a pain to lug around heavy camera equipment, and yes, you have to protect it from dust, rain and theft. But so many times on this trip I saw things I just couldn’t photograph with the camera I had on hand.
  • Joined a few carefully selected tours. We chose to make all our own transportation and accommodation arrangements, which probably saved us money and definitely resulted in many wonderful encounters, insights and experiences. Traveling like the local people do gives you a glimpse of their lives that you just can't get from an air-conditioned tourist van. But we also had days when we arrived at our destination too exhausted to be interested in what was around us. Letting somebody else do the planning now and then would have saved some wear and tear. 
  • Built in more down time. When you travel for an extended period, you just can't keep up the pace you might during a two- or three-week vacation. We learned this eventually, though it never felt quite right to "waste" a day when there was so much around us to do.
  • Learned more language before the trip. I found it impossible to even think about studying Portuguese in a Spanish-speaking country. It was hard enough to study Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country! I wish that before I left home I had mastered at least the basic phrases in each language we were going to encounter. Even stammering out “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you” makes a world of difference. Very often, knowing just a little more would have let me have real conversations.

Five Realizations

Getting a parcel wrapped for mailing in India means going to a street vendor who sews it up in white linen and seals it with red wax. (KK)

  • Slow is good. The places I remember most clearly are the ones where we stayed a while and did ordinary things—bought groceries, browsed bookstores, paid for phone service—rather than just saw the sights.  
  • The world is really big. We went so many places—and we saw just a tiny fraction of all there is to see.
  • You might as well be optimistic. When you travel, so many things are beyond your control that you can either be paralyzed or take the positive view. Staying hopeful is less tiring—and it’s almost always warranted.  
  • It's tricky to balance trust and caution. In some places you have to develop a thousand-yard stare to ward off all those who will clamor for your attention, your business, your coins, pens, sweets or whatever. Almost everywhere, you have to be alert to avoid theft and scams. But sometimes the guide you hire because his persistence wore you down turns out to be excellent. Sometimes the kid who is Bonjour-madame!-ing you to death just wants to say hi. If you’re too distant and too careful, you miss out on the little exchanges that make travel so much fun.  
  • Wherever you’re thinking of going, go now! Your knees will only get creakier. And that thing people say about how it can be cheaper to go than to stay at home? I never used to believe it either, but it's true! It's true!


    Shelley said...

    Oh such wonderful and insightful commentary. Girl, you won't wear me out talking about your trip. I have big vicarious travel ears just waiting to hear!
    Congratulations on your amazing adventure and I hope our little town isn't a let down. See you soon, Shelley

    Kathleen Kearns said...

    Thanks, Shel! Can't wait to see you!

    Teence said...

    Very beautiful, interesting and lovely photos.

    Kathleen Kearns said...

    Thank you!