Dear Monica Drake,
I’m good at following lists
Your team comes up with a list of 52 places to go every year. I respect that. I’m also a travel list maker. A while back I decided I wanted to travel to all seven continents. Since I have a day job, I couldn’t tackle them all at once, but I rationed my vacation days wisely and managed to see the world one continent at a time.
I’ve got stamina
My most epic spurt of travel occurred in 2014. I went on a two week hiking trip through India and Nepal, returned home to New Jersey for three days so I could move apartments, then flew to Monte Carlo for a week-long work conference, followed by another week of office work in London. Going from one extreme to the other, I found myself roughing it without electricity in Nepal one week and the next week I was at a black-tie gala in Monaco eating gold leaf desserts. You can send me anywhere.
I enjoy the big and little things on the road
Yes, I’ve been to Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. But I’ve also been to more exotic places like the Pen Café in Waiouru, New Zealand and the Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square, PA, which has closed its main building but some of the exhibits have relocated to The Mushroom Cap store. I know because I’ve been to both mushroom locations.
I can write
I’m not just a pretty face with a well-worn passport. I also have a masters’ degree in journalism from Boston University. During my student days I interned at Food and Travel magazine in London. And I’ve been to Lonely Planet’s holiday party once. That last fact counts, right?
I’m a nice person
I’m nice by default, but it has its uses when you’re working as a travel journalist. People open up to you and tell you things they wouldn’t tell other people. If you ask a question about a train schedule, they’ll give you the answer but also advise you that the bus is the better option. Being nice has meant that when I’ve traveled in Brazil and India and England I’ve stayed at the homes of friends rather than hotels. Being nice helps the world feel smaller, which is useful when you have epic travel dreams.
So, Monica Drake, I’m your traveler. Let me know when you want me to start.
Sometimes a moment just hits you. Out of nowhere, something happens, your mood changes and you can’t deny it. You are humbled by the moment, and left shaken.
And sometimes these moments crystallize your identity and make you realize things about yourself that you didn’t fully understand or previously see evidence of.
During a semester abroad, I was walking down the street in London on my way to the theatre. I loved living in London and could not have been happier about the situation and my life at that point.
It was autumn and the sun set early, so even though it wasn’t very late, the street were dark and I was navigating a new part of town. As I was walking past shops and grocers I heard Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” come playing out of bar and I started to cry, as I kept walking along.
“I was born in the U.S.A!” I wailed internally, while my mouth wobbled downward and I tried to hold back the tears welling up in my eyes.
These emotions caught me completely off guard. I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t care about this song. I knew I loved America, but so what? That’s nothing to cry about. What was it that provoked this reaction? I have no idea. Maybe I was in denial about my homesickness, or maybe hearing those words “Born in the U.S.A.,” so clearly when I was in a different country just highlighted my American-ness in a very powerful way. I don’t know.
I can wave the flag and sing the national anthem at football games, but it’s these unexpected moments that hit you in the gut that really make you think about your country and what it means to be one of its citizens.
In contrast, there are other times when you see the negative side of America and you wish you weren’t a part of it. I know America does a lot of bad things, but I usually don’t think too long about the specifics of it. Sometimes the injustices of America flicker through my mind, like when I was living in Cleveland and I knew no matter how fast I drove through East Cleveland or how many traffic laws I broke, the cops would never pull a white girl over in that neighborhood.
It’s wrong. It’s bad. It’s a fact. We move on.
But sometimes those things get to you.
In Johannesburg, South Africa in 2011, I was waiting for a plane to fly back to New York City. One of the girls I’d been traveling with was there, too, waiting for her flight home to London. We ate dinner and when it got closer to our flights we walked downstairs to our gates. Every other gate in the airport looked as it always did, looked the same way it did about a week ago when I few into the same airport. But it was a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the security around the flight to New York was visible.
You’re broke, you’re fat, you couldn’t even give me an abortion if I wanted one and you still let people smoke indoors, like some carcinogenic relic of my early bar days. (You do your own thing and don’t give a fuck.) But you won me over with a first impression. The other states we bounced by didn’t give as much. Alabama – missed the good stuff. Arkansas was a bit of a ghost town and Tennessee rained on me, not its fault, but I need the sun. Mississippi, I like the way your people talk to me, feed me doughnuts and orange juice for breakfast and make me feel at home even if I never want to live there. Plowed cotton fields to drive by and a breading ground for music that makes my butt wiggle. You just feel good to me and I want to say thank you.
My plans to vacation in Greece in the summer of 2012 were made independently of the debt crisis. It’s not like I was going specifically to watch the beginning of the end of the Euro or be a witness to history on some grand scale.
I was going sailing with my boyfriend and his parents, a retired French couple. The trip had been planned months before the phase austerity measures blared from every other headline and NPR was informing people about riots and Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi leaning political party growing in popularity.
I was excited about the prospect of being in a country that was the focus of so much media attention. I felt bad about the economy, but not too bad. I was a little worried about the safety factor, but not too worried.
My boyfriend’s parents had been traveling off and on throughout Greece in the spring. They said that from a tourist perspective it was business as usually. Nothing dramatic to see.
I was sure they were wrong.
Shortly before the trip I read an article about the rise in burglaries. Criminals throughout Europe were flocking to Greece, bolding breaking into homes during the day to steal the money Greeks had withdrawn from the banks they were losing faith in. According to the article, some robberies occurred while the homeowners were casually relaxing on their verandas.
I practiced how to say “Attentions! Les pirates!” in case our sailboat was invaded in the middle of the night, while we were docked. I practiced saying it with my eyebrows raised in mock horror, and saying it while pointing at the imaginary pirates (in case I had to alert people on the boat near by, who, presumably, would also be French speakers).
When I arrived in Greece, in the taxi ride between the airport and the harbor, I was on the lookout for signs of a revolution. Most of the signs I saw were roadside stands selling watermelons.
During the week we spent sailing around the islands of Andros, Tinos and Kea, there wasn’t much to see in terms of breaking economic news. The tavernas were mostly empty, but the tourists among us kept insisting it was just the start of the vacation season, and the seats would fill up later.
Returning to the mainland for a few days, I started to see repetitive graffiti that I interpreted as political symbols. There were clovers, a number seven and half of a swastika. Usually, two or three of each appeared together, like a Democratic poster being taped up next to a Republican one. Sometimes they were ineffectively painted over, like the censor had run out of paint, and sometimes they were boldly crossed out, as if the person covering it up wanted you to know he was covering it, not erasing it from memory but emphasizing his disapproval.
This was the closest thing I saw to any native symbol that trouble was brewing. Was trouble even brewing? I was sitting at a café, drinking beer and reading a New York Times article about the desperate state of the tourism industry and the intense, unmistakable sadness pouring out from the Greek people.
The first line of the article was “Taking a vacation in Greece this year may feel a bit like intruding on private grief.” I looked around me and saw a group of children playing. Later that night the cafes in Methana were packed with people watching the Greece vs. Russia football match. Greece won, and the mood was festive.
On Sunday, June 17 we were in Athens during election day. Aside from a few TV cameras in front of government buildings and relaxed police outside of what may have been polling stations, it was hard for an outsider to tell that an election was going on.
When we arrived at the gate of the Acropolis it was clear there was an election going on because the ruins had a sign posted saying the attraction was closed because of the elections.
It was frustrating, but if that’s the biggest impact the financial crisis was having on tourists, that’s not really worth a mention.
It’s possible that the scenes of happiness I kept seeing were coincidentally linked together and nothing more. Like when I went to Africa and found that every meal was filled with mayonnaise, and Dolly Parton music filled the radio.
Maybe it was reality in a bubble, but it was the reality I saw.
Don’t worry, darlings, ZsaZsa is still an urbanite. She just needs to explore her nature lovin’ side from time to time.
On Saturday I took a group hiking trip up to Bear Mountain State Park, about an hour outside of NYC. It’s a state park for city folk. Why? None of the trails are too hard. The administrative buildings are made of cute fieldstone and exposed beam. There’s an ice skating rink and merry-go-round for over-stimulated city kids. And every weekend in October the park celebrates Octoberfest, in case you’re missing your neighborhood bar.
When we got off the bus from NYC, our larger group broke off into smaller groups, and my group of six hikers decided to take on the Popolopen Torne trail. Sometimes the hardest part of hiking is finding the start of the trail. This time, we had to trust the map, cross a highway roundabout and walk down the side of the highway, away from the main park entrance before finding the trial head.
We found it. There was a big orange sign saying trail closed. We went anyway.
The trail was pretty tame for the most part. Mostly we followed white and red trail markers that looked like the Japanese flag.
Not that we didn’t run into a few hiccups. There was a washed out bridge, that had (once) proudly been labeled “Made by volunteers.”
And later on we reached a confusing fork in the road that told us not to enter because it was shooting range territory, but at the same time told us to stay on the trail. Make up your mind before I get shot!
So we didn’t make it up the mountain. Instead we ended up on the Popolopen Gorge/Queensboro Lake trail, a senic 6.5 mile trek around the base of the mountain. Next time, I’m going up.
The last leg of our journey was one that we were all really looking forward to. We’d be quad biking and sleeping under the stars, sans tent, on the Makgadikgadi Pans, basically a large salt desert.
Like the other pieces of our trip, there’d be a long bus ride between destinations. We left our camp early in the morning and boarded a bus in Maun that would drop us off outside Gweta near the other camp we’d booked our trip with.
This particular camp had more luxury offerings than the other places we’d booked with, and as we slowly found out they were good at ripping off naive tourists.
The bus dropped us off at the end of the camp’s driveway and we walked about a mile down the dirt road past large Baobab trees before we reached the reservation desk. After checking in we had a few hours of down time before our tour left. Hello, pool time!
This particular pool was more beautiful than the last one, but it was deeper, which meant the water was even icier. But after carrying all my luggage down the long driveway under the hot sun I jumped all the way in. The pool was surrounded by little huts with wooden beds where we could escape the heat.
When we got thirsty, we moved over to the bar to grab some beers. The bartender asked if we wanted to order food, and I ordered a meal from the lunch menu while the other girls ordered ice cream, with the intention of ordering lunch at a later point.
Time for another lesson in Botswana food service. To summarize, we were the only customers there, a cook was in the kitchen and the bartender brought up the idea of ordering food. We did.
About 45 minutes passed, and the other girls decided to cancel their ice cream orders and go directly for lunch orders since it didn’t look like there’d be enough time to order them after the ice cream arrived. Time kept a’ tickin’ by. Eventually the ice cream was brought out, and the bartender told the waitress, to return it because that order was canceled. We waited some more. Well over an hour after our original order was placed, our food arrived.
That’s fine. I just want to know WHAT THE HELL ARE PEOPLE DOING BACK THERE? HOW DOES IT TAKE SO LONG TO SCOOP ICE CREAM? IS THE COOK TOO BUSY RESTING TO MAKE THE ONLY LUNCH ORDER THAT’S RECEIVED?
Botswana, I love you, but you leave me with so many questions.
Anyway, after the nice meal we met up with the other people going on our trip. Unlike the other parts of our adventure where we’d have a guide all to ourselves, this time we’d be sharing a guide with about seven American college girls studying abroad and one guy, a dermatology resident working on a Botswana rotation and wearing a Dan Deacon t-shirt, just to remind me of all the uber music fans I left behind in NYC.
Our journey out to the Pans was kind of painful. Previous drivers we’d had would drive at a normal pace over the dirt roads even if that meant the passengers would be bouncing around as if we were on a motorized trampoline. This driver tried to avoid that by driving like we were passing through a school zone for several hours. I’d rather be bounced around.
Plus, those American girls were killing me. They spoke in valley girl tones. They talked about whether their college boyfriends were “the one.” And one girl had inspirational quotes like “Believe in your dreams and they’ll come true,” by Walt Disney written in rainbow colored markers on her white canvas shoes.
I put my head on the seat in front of me and groaned at one point. The British girls I was traveling with found it entertaining, like watching crap TV on the telly.
Eventually, we reached the quad bike pick up point and we broke into pairs for the rides. I’d never ridden a quad bike before, so I hopped on the back of one. My driver wasn’t so familiar with the bike either, but after a bumpy start, we got going and it was great fun rushing through the landscape while the grasses melted away into the lunar-like salt desert.
Just when we’d gotten the hang of driving, we all pulled over and got back in the van to go see some meerkats.
Meerkats are pretty fuckin’ cute. We spent some quality time with a group of adults and baby meerkats on the crest of a small hill. They’d stand around on their hind legs with their little meerkat paws in front of their chest while they watched the sun set. Mwah.
After the meerkat love fest, we returned to our quad bikes, and this time I was in the driver’s seat. It was an adrenaline rush, and I was enjoying it until I ran into some logistical problems
First, we were driving at sunset, but I kept my sunglasses on to avoid getting dust in my eyes, which meant the further the sun sank, the more difficult it was to see. Not that the dust was really blocked by the glasses. And it wasn’t regular dust, it was salty dust, so salt was blowing in my eyes and burning them. The closer we road to the bike in front of us, the more dust there was, but driving further apart meant risking losing sight of the tail lights and getting lost. It was a catch-22.
The bike in front of us pulled over because they lost the trail of bikes in front of them. I decided to keep going and followed the main set of tire tracks and eventually made it to camp in the dark night. A short while later, the last bike in the group pulled into camp and said the girls on the bike that stopped after getting lost couldn’t get their bike to start again. They were stranded on the Pans at night. Our guide hopped in the jeep to fetch them.