Sardinia: Look No Further for Your Next Destination
I had never spent much time thinking about that "other" Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, ...
Yum: Hanoi’s Addictive Street Food
Oh boy, where do I begin? Northern Vietnam had hands down my favorite cuisine of the 20+ countries we visited over the past year (note: I do not feel it would be fair to include Italy in the running for ...
Cat Ba Island: Taking the Plunge
With our time in Vietnam running a bit short, and having gotten our exposure to the countryside and mountains on our motorbiking trip, and to city life with a few days in Hanoi, we decided what was missing was some ...
Motorbiking in Northeastern Vietnam
Before visiting Southeast Asia, we weren't big motorbiking enthusiasts; in fact, Claudia's motorbiking experience consisted entirely of a few anxiety-ridden hours in Europe many years ago, and mine consisted of crashing a small toy bike into a fence in Portland, ...
I can't rave enough about this awesome town at the base of the Smoky Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina. It's been six months since we've been and I still smile when I think of our time there.
We'd been wanting to check out Asheville for a long time, and finally decided to make the 7-hour trip for a long weekend over New Year's. We reserved a cute apartment (complete with a kitty and chickens in the yard) in the West Asheville neighborhood through airbnb, and off we were with a list of a few dozen (!) restaurants, breweries, and galleries to visit!
Asheville packs a lot in a small space, but we managed to eat, drink and explore to our heart's delight, and left plenty to do for our next visit (hopefully in warmer weather!). When we weren't eating delicious Spanish tapas made by a chef with El Bulli training or sampling Indian street food that reminded of us our favorite snacks in New Dehli, we were tasting microbrews and contra-dancing with the locals.
To burn off those calories and check out the local art scene, we spent half a day exploring the River Arts District, which spans along the French Broad River in former industrial buildings and showcases dozens of artists' work, ranging from pottery to paintings to textiles.
While most people think of the Biltmore mansion when they hear of Asheville, we skipped it because of the hefty price tag. So we did the next best thing, and spent a couple hours at the Grove Park Inn, which hosts a huge gingerbread house competition around Christmas every year. Sunset drinks on their expansive patio weren't bad either!
Are you somehow still not sold on canceling whatever plans you had this weekend and driving down to Asheville right away?! How about a giant used bookstore with a champagne bar and tons of nooks and crannies to spend your afternoon?!
Asheville has a friendly, down-to-earth feel that has clearly cultivated a creative community of people who love where they live and want to share it with others. We felt welcome everywhere we went and by our fifth day there, I was wishing I was a local too!
While we weren't able to explore the area's endless outdoor opportunities-- hiking and rafting to name a few-- we did end the trip with a dip in the natural hot springs in - wait for it- Hot Springs, North Carolina! There's nothing quite like renting your own private tub for an hour in a rustic setting and treating yourself to some mineral therapy to confirm the fact that this little corner of the Carolinas is where it's at!
Eat and Drink:
- The Admiral - random, delicious, constantly changing menu in what looks to be an old dive bar-- there's a fireplace outside to keep you cosy on a cold winter night, and there's dancing after 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays (this is hipster heaven)
- Biscuit Heads - biscuits the size of your heads, served with gravy of your choice, or help yourself to the delicious butter and jam buffet!
- The Bull and Beggar - From the team behind The Admiral- we only had cocktails at this spot in the River Arts District by but wished we could have tasted the food!
- Curate Tapas Bar - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy delicious tapas!
- Cucina 24 - Italian, try the tasting menu
- Chai Pani - Indian street food. Try the Bhel Puri!
- Early Girl Eatery - Southern/comfort food, go for breakfast
- French Broad Chocolate Lounge - almost any kind of chocolate creation you can imagine, go after dinner for dessert!
- Ben's Tune Up - small but good draft selection served with a side of Japanese food in beer-garden atmosphere
- The Southern - ask for Connor at the bar
- Wicked Weed - awesome brews and great food. Always crowded.
- Wedge Brewing - fun brewery in the River Arts District (but beware, there is no food except peanuts!)
- Walk around the River Arts District
- Peruse a great selection of used books and sip champagne at Battery Park Book Exchange
- Check out the general store-y stuff at Mast General Store
- Grab a huge rocking chair in front of the fire at the Grove Park Inn
- Buy good quality used outdoor gear at Second Gear
- Go contra-dancing or see a show at The Grey Eagle
- Pick up some local brews to bring home at Bruisin Ales
- Catch a live show at the Westville Pub
- Check out Christopher Mello's public garden at Westwood Place and Waynesville Avenue
- Pick up some records at Harvest Record Shop
- Soak in your own personal hot tub in Hot Springs, NC
2013: The year of the unwritten blog post.
I don't know where the year went, but here we are, in glorious 2014, and I realize, thinking back, that we actually kinda got around this past year. Nothing like 2011-2012, but hey, you can't always have the (travel) year of your life. I'm not complaining, but I do miss the days when blogging was our full time job.
This past year involved a lot of US travel, some of it afforded by unexpected furlough time off for me, as well as a big Switzerland/Italy trip for my mom's 70th birthday that took us to possibly my new favorite place in Europe. I meant to write about all these adventures, but alas, this recap will have to do!
We started 2013 off by celebrating the new year with best friends in New Mexico, where we stalked Breaking Bad sites and stuffed our faces with 'New Mex' food in Albuquerque and then tried to burn it off on the slopes skiing in Taos. We hope to be back in that part of the world this spring, when Yael and Curtis welcome their first baby girl!
February involved a trip to NYC to see Nick's uncle who was visiting from Israel, and then a local skiing weekend at Snowshoe in West Virginia with friends that turned out almost as much fresh powder as our Taos weekend. Not wanting to push our luck any further with two amazing skiing trips under our belts, I began to think about sun. March took me to Palm Springs for my dear friend Chris' bachelorette party, where we ate citrus fruits off the trees and pretended we were in Mad Men.
April rolled around, and I had my mind set on making lemonade (a SCUBA diving trip) out of lemons (forced furlough days). And we all know... when I set my mind on a trip, it is going to happen, come hell or high water. I brought little more than a bathing suit, my PADI card and my mom, and spent a week diving off the world's second largest barrier reef in Roatán, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Added bonus: it matched my furlough budget perfectly and the diving was some of the best I've ever done.
In May we celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a laid back weekend at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland, and then got ready for our big vacation in June! I first went to Switzerland to see my uncle and cousins whom I had not seen in years, and then Nick and I spent an absolutely amazing 11 days in Sardinia (Italy) with my mom and cousin, followed by a date weekend in Rome. I've said it before, but really, make Sardinia your next European vacation.
We try not to make a habit out of letting more than a year go by without checking out a music festival, so July brought us and our music fiend friend Kelly to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Newport Folk Festival. While I am not a huge folk fan, I loved the laid back vibe of the weekend, the awesome setting on the water, biking around the area, and of course, all the fried delicious Rhode Island seafood at Flo's Clam Shack. Seeing Black Prairie, Beck, Bombino, and The Lumineers wasn't too shabby either. We'll be back for more, that's for sure.
Since we didn't make the annual family reunion in upstate New York over July 4th weekend, we packed up the car and left for a long weekend to join Nick's dad's family in Sylvan Beach (on Lake Oneida near Syracuse) in August. Gin and tonics, fire pits, sunset photos, beach croquet and an upstate New York culinary specialty called "salt potatoes" made for a fun and relaxing long weekend with the Violi clan.
September brought me to East Hampton, New York for another amazing bachelorette weekend full of lawn games, delicious food and tons of laughs to celebrate my college roommate Joyce. Joyce, if you're reading this, don't forget about my offer to housesit that gorgeous Long Island South Fork house of yours anytime!
I love east coast fall more than anything. But before we totally let go of summer, we spent the last weekend of September in Southern Maryland, a place that's special to us because we were married there in 2011, and also because Chesapeake Bay crabs, hello! We camped and canoed in Point Lookout State Park, which was a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War; 4000 of its 50,000 prisoners supposedly died there. Prisoner ghosts aside, it's a lovely and serene gem of a place at the southern tip of Maryland's Western Shore, and it's also one of the launches for the ferry to tiny Smith Island, an eroding island with a population of less than 300. There's not much to do here, other than eat soft shell crabs at one of two restaurants, grab a slice of the famous Smith Island Cake, and bike between the two towns. We rounded out the weekend with a wine tasting at Woodlawn Farm, where we got married and hadn't been since!
October brought an unexpected trip to Chicago for me. The government shut down had me at home way too much, trying to avoid the relentless rain and the constant news feed that only seemed to indicate I definitely had enough time to take a last minute trip somewhere before those goons on the Hill got their acts together. The Windy City has been on my list for a long time, and I was lucky enough to make it there just a few weeks before my friends Jeff, Aimee, and their 5-month old daughter moved away, so I had lovely hosts to boot.
October and November took us to NYC two times, first to spend time with our close friends and their baby girl, and then for my friend Joyce's wedding, which was a fantastic college reunion. Between those two, we squeezed in a trip to Austin to visit our friends Amy and Ben, eat tacos, hit up a music festival, and eat more tacos. We were successful on all fronts!
Thanksgiving through Christmas is all about family, and we do it up right. Nick's family in Boston throws a superb Thanksgiving get together, and three weeks later we reunite again at his grandparents' house in Manhattan, this time complete with a white elephant gift exchange and plenty of rounds of Coffee Pot and Celebrity. No reunion tee-shirts, no drama, just straight up fun!
And that (phew!) brings us to the end of the year, which Nick and I spent in adorable Asheville, North Carolina. I cannot speak highly enough of this town and our time there; it deserves its own post. All in all, a wonderful end to an awesome year! Already pumped about where 2014 will bring us...
This fall has afforded me some great East Coast and Midwest travel (thanks, dysfunctional government, for those 16 days off!).
My first fall trip was to East Hampton, Long Island, where a group of extremely fun gals and one lucky guy spent a long weekend in September celebrating the upcoming nuptials of one of my dearest friends Joyce. Her house is set on the stunning north coast of the South Fork on Gardiners Bay, facing slightly west for perfect sunset viewing. I spent most of the weekend laying in the grass, lifting my head up slightly to stare out at the gorgeous bay, and brainstorming how I could best convince Joyce's family that they needed a full time live-in caretaker who happens to be me, and who could be available for immediate hire. Here are some of my favorite shots of the weekend. I'll let you all know when they finally get around to hiring me!
Dreaming of Rome on this lovely evening...
Its adorable piazzas
Its secret bread rooms (this door was open so we peeked in; it was two doors down from our apartment building, and made our room smell like freshly baked loaves every day!)
Its street performers
... And of course, its pizza!
It really is no wonder Rome is my favorite city in the world.
I had never spent much time thinking about that "other" Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, but not a beach bum), my mom (a beach bum and culture enthusiast), and myself (all of the above) happy for ten days. Italian beaches, from my experience, are disappointing--small, crowded, rocky, with polluted water and overpriced real estate (a lounge chair and umbrella can set you back $25 for the day). But to my surprise, I was finding nothing but great reviews of Sardinia's white-sand beaches with turquoise waters, many only reachable by boat, some backed by imposing limestone cliffs or huge sand dunes on all sides.
I was intrigued by the island's history of occupation which seemingly has left Sardinians proud and fiercely independent, their culture and traditions intact over the centuries (they still speak their own language, Sardo). It seemed like a rugged, intense, but still welcoming place. And the more I researched, the more I realized that this semi-autonomous Italian island might just be the perfect place for all of us: tales of world-class rock climbing, hiking through mountains on uncrowded trails, more archaeological sites than one could ever see in a single visit, SCUBA diving, gorgeous (/perilous) mountain drives, and quaint towns had me convinced that I needed to look no further. Watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in which he (of course) eats his way through the island with his hot Sardinian wife pretty much sealed the deal for me. Mom and I decided we had found the perfect place for her celebratory 70th birthday trip.
With high expectations, my mom, my cousin Sara (she barely needed the twist of an arm to be convinced to join us), Nick and I found ourselves in sunny Sardinia this June. The three ladies spent our first three days in and around Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and a city on the southern coast that proved to be much more than just a convenient base for day trips. We started each day with espresso and croissants at a sidewalk cafe, then hit the road to explore the southeast and southwest areas of the island, stopping at gorgeous beaches each day and enjoying our picnic of delicious tomatoes, crusty bread, and mozzarella di bufala while gazing at incredibly blue waters. We hiked in the Monte dei Sette Fratelli, where we saw no other hikers during our 5-hour trek.
While Cagliari is perfectly located within an hour of some of the island's prettiest stretches of sand and therefore serves as an ideal base, we found ourselves really enjoying the pace and feel of the city itself. I expected it to be sleepy, but was surprised at not only how many locals we encountered at the town's may cafes and piazzas, but also by the large proportion of young people (the economic crisis has caused many young Sardinians to seek work on the mainland and beyond). And the seafood- THE SEAFOOD!- was to die for. I have never eaten so many different kinds of fish and shellfish cooked in various ways, all for the wallet-friendly price of less than $20 per person for all-you-can eat hot and cold appetizers, brought to your table seemingly fresh from the sea.
On the fourth day, Nick joined us, and after a rental car snafu that may or may not have been caused by me burning out the clutch on an Alfa Romeo during rush hour in a crowded roundabout (no really, I am still not sure if it was totally my fault or if the car was a little screwed up to being with...), we were back on track and driving up into the rugged Gennargentu mountains toward Cala Gonone, our home on the east coast for the remaining week.
Until relatively recently, Cala Gonone was inaccessible by car and only reachable by sea. It's a pleasantly laid-back holiday town, beautifully situated on the Golfo di Orosei, arguably one of the island's most breathtaking stretches of coast. Huge limestone cliffs are interrupted occasionally by postcard-perfect beaches that are almost all only reachable by boat. Some of the island's best rock climbing can be found in this area, so we were basically in heaven. We chose a different adventure each day: hiking between beaches, or bringing our climbing gear and reveling in the jaw-dropping views that rewarded us after a tough ascent.
We drove on roads with switchbacks that would be highly illegal in the US to reach our destinations. We hopped on a boat to check out a grotto one afternoon, and hiked through a gorgeous river valley to explore one of Europe's deepest canyons the next. In the evenings, we either cooked delicious dinners in our apartment and spent the evening drinking local wine on our cozy balcony, or we tried the local delicacies at a restaurant. Each night we went to bed with huge smiles on our faces--we were tired, full, and happy; excited to see what the next day would hold.
My Umbrian family wouldn't be happy hearing me say this, but I think Sardinia is my new favorite region in Italy (if not in all of Europe). Somehow, I don't think they'd be too offended, because Sardinia might as well be its own country; I almost don't feel that it should be compared to anywhere on the mainland. The slow pace of life, the proud but friendly people, the strong sense of tradition, the striking natural beauty of the place--sure, those things can all be found in Italy, but there is just something incredibly special about this island. Trust me, go there, and I promise you will not be disappointed.
When sequestration hit this federal employee with a self-diagnosed travel bug, there was really no other logical thing to do than plan a furlough-cation on a budget. I'd been itching to dive, since it had been about a year since my last SCUBA adventure, and since Nick isn't a diver, it made perfect sense to take my extra (unpaid) time off without him and head to the nearest, most affordable diving spot. One Facebook post later, and I was pretty much convinced that the Honduran Bay Islands were the place to go.
While mainland Honduras doesn't attract a ton of visitors compared to its Central American neighbors, the Bay Islands are most definitely a destination. There are several islands off the Caribbean Coast of Honduras that make up the Bay Islands, but the most well known are Roatán and Útila, and as I quickly discovered, diving is the main attraction here. Located near the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef!), it's no wonder people come from all over the place to dive here.
So I found a free flight using frequent flier miles (Delta and United each had one for 35,000 RT!), decided to stay in a bungalow near the nicest beach in Roatán and dug up my PADI ID. I mentioned to my mom that I was headed to somewhere that had a stretch of sand, and she immediately wanted in, so off we were!
I am generally not a huge fan of the Caribbean-- something about it just screams cheesy, lazy package tourists, and all-inclusive resorts with no soul-- but I enjoyed a visit to Little Corn Island (off the coast of Nicaragua) a few years ago, so I thought perhaps I would not be disappointed in the Bay Islands. My mom and I were immediately relieved when we arrived and saw how casual West Bay was. Despite having a couple higher end hotels, the place just has an incredibly easy-going attitude, the beaches are not private or roped off, and tourists and locals alike play soccer on the sand, take strolls up and down the 1-mile stretch of beach, and spend the afternoon snorkeling until 4 p.m. hits and it's time to enjoy happy hour rum punch!
Our evenings were spent first watching the sunset, and then deciding what seafood we wanted to feast on. We met another awesome mother-daughter duo, Linda and Sara, who were staying at our bungalows and celebrating Linda's 60th. We immediately hit it off, and spent many evenings having dinner, trying out all the run concoctions, and singing karaoke in the nearby town of West End.
Our one day trip was to Cayos Cochinos, a nearby archipelago that is inhabited by a small community of garifunas, who've lived there for hundreds of years. Most of the islands are uninhabited, a few are privately owned, and all seem like the perfect location for a season of Survivor. We spent the day snorkeling, eating a home-cooked seafood lunch, and diving.
Speaking of diving, let's not forget the whole point of this trip: spending as much time underwater as possible. And that's exactly what I did. I dove twice a day, and the diving really was excellent. The main attraction is a plethora of colorful fish (think angelfish, parrotfish, etc.), but I saw hawksbill turtles on almost every dive, and encountered some huge lobsters, green morays, and eagle rays a few times as well. The massive corals and sponges were beautiful, and just as interesting to observe than the critters. It's hard to explain why us divers strap on heavy equipment and shell out a bunch of cash to spend 45 minutes breathing underwater, but to me it's one of the most relaxing and exciting things at the same time. It really is a whole different planet down there, one that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and gorgeous to look at. For those of you who have always been too scared to try it, I have one thing to say: my 70-year-old mom tried diving and LOVED it. She picked it up really quickly and had the time of her life. So what are you waiting for?
Palm Springs, California. The place might make you think of Bob Hope surrounded by palm trees in a desert. Or you might think of white sand beaches-- isn't there a Palm Springs in Florida? (Yes, but I avoid Florida at all costs). It may seem like a curious destination for a group of 30 y.o.-ish ladies and one very handsome gentlemen go to celebrate the impending wedding of our favorite bachelorette, Christina. But we wanted somewhere warm, with some kind of body of water (a backyard pool will definitely do!), that wasn't too complicated to get to for a weekend trip, and would be relaxing. Florida was out (see above), flights to the Caribbean were too expensive, LA and San Diego wouldn't be relaxing enough, and Sedona would have been beautiful but we're more mid-century mod than crystals and vortexes (vorti? I don't need to know the answer to that).
So we found ourselves in a rental car driving from LAX to Palm Springs (about 120 miles), where the scenery goes from smog, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and In-N-Out signs set high above the highway interchanges to wind farms and desolate mountain ranges (don't worry, we definitely stopped to eat Animal Style burgers well before 11 am). I'd been out to this area four times before for the Coachella Valley Music Festival, but I'd never actually been to Palm Springs on any of those trips. We had opted for a Don Draper-esque rental house over staying at the infamous Ace Hotel, and did not regret that decision one bit. The house was spacious, simply but elegantly furnished, and retained its 1950s kitchen with original stove (but luckily not original blender).
The backyard was the real highlight though: wide, with a pool that actually went deeper than 3 feet (us city folk don't usually get to dunk our heads in any of those rooftop condo 'pools'), and multiple citrus trees, providing us unlimited fresh grapefruit and orange juice for our jalapeno margaritas, as well as a few of the MOST DELICIOUS TANGERINES I HAVE EVER TASTED. When the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, there was a hot tub from which we had a perfect view of the San Jacinto Mountains that border Palm Springs to the west.
The town's population is an interesting mix. There are of course retirees (as in any area that's warm and sprinkled with citrus trees and golf courses), as well as a healthy older gay population that seems to flock there from LA on the weekends to enjoy some fresher air and quiet. The main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, is a mecca for mid-century mod aficionados and design geeks. If money was no object, I'd easily be able to furnish my entire house from a 5-block stretch of home stores. Palm Springs' good taste in home furnishings was confirmed when we happened to walk by a store selling my father's Solair Chair, a colorful plastic backyard piece that he and his business partner designed in Montreal in the early 70s. The chair is popular in the US and Canada, but I'd never actually seen it in a store (it's mostly sold in Quebec and New England), and coming across it left me with an overwhelming sense of pride and happiness.
Just an hour away is the otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park, with its classic desert landscape, including plenty of the eponymous trees, mountains, and crazy rock formations (and some amazing climbing opportunities). We did an easy 7 mile hike in the northern part of the park, which was a great way to see the varying landscape of this area.
Back to the reason we had flown across the country: to celebrate Chris' final weeks as a bachelorette, and celebrate we did! We consumed copious amounts of homemade guacamole by the pool, grabbed a grapefruit off the tree whenever we needed a snack, ate some delicious dinners, including some of the yummiest pizza I've ever had in the US, and plotted how we could stay in our beautiful backyard forever. Oh and did I mention the date milkshakes? Life changing. Palm Springs' nightlife isn't exactly going to surpass NYC's or LA's anytime soon, but we found a townie karaoke bar and a divey seafood spot where oyster shooters are the star on the menu-- and let's be honest, does anyone really need more than that? It's no surprise the town was filled with bachelorette parties; it's the perfect place to relax, enjoy the California sun, and pretend that it's totally natural to have a swimming pool and green lawn in the middle of a desert! We'll be back for those delicious tangerines, and it's not going to be pretty for that poor tree. Thank you Chris, for giving us an excellent excuse to experience Palm Springs!
- Get a date shake and one of the many fruit orchards, such as Hadley's
- Eat the amazing pizza at Birba, and don't skip dessert!
- Get oyster shooters and fish tacos at Shanghai Red's
- Have brunch at King's Highway, next to the Ace Hotel
- Palm Springs is about a 2.5 hour drive from LAX, which is often cheaper to fly into than PSP
- Rental houses can be found on vrbo,com and many other sites, or stay at the Ace if you want a 24-hour hipster pool party (you can also buy a day pass to the pool there)
The world is a small place, and there's one tradition in the Galapagos Islands that seeks to show visitors exactly that. In Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, one of the 18 islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago off the coast of mainland Ecuador, there is a barrel just inland from a beach where visitors can leave postcards for friends and family for hand delivery. The barrel is open, and when you arrive, tradition dating back to the 18th century says that you should look through the cards within, take any that are destined for near where you live, or near somewhere you'll be visiting, and hand-deliver them.
Floreana was one of the islands we visited in July 2011, so we had written and addressed a few postcards to family, and once we landed on the island, we placed them in the barrel, hoping for the best. I had read a short story once by an American woman who took one of these postcards from the barrel addressed to someone near Venice, Italy, because she was going to be there later that year. She recounted her experience venturing to a small town outside of Venice just to deliver the postcard. She tracked the addressee down, who turned out to be a friendly little Italian nonna. The postcard deliverer was instantly welcomed like an old friend, invited for a home-cooked meal with the whole family, and ended up spending the rest of her vacation with her newfound Italian friends as they showed her around their region and fed her delicious foods. I pictured an American East Coaster, on vacation in the Galapagos, landing on Floreana Island and taking one of our postcards. He or she would knock on grandma and grandpa's door in Manhattan, be invited in for coffee, and become Grandma Myra's instant new best friend. They'd talk for hours and find out that they had much in common; perhaps it would turn out their lives had crossed paths before. I wanted our postcards to bring people together, to create a memorable story, and to be a happy reminder for us and those who happened to take them home that day in Post Office Bay.
Over a year went by, and much like the stamped postcards that we had mailed home from 'real' post offices, I had given up hope of them ever arriving to their destinations. Then, in December, we got an email from Nick's dad, Dan: Arrived today via USPS. Postcard is dated 7/28/2011. It arrived in an envelope postmarked 12/4/12 from San Francisco. Not delivered by hand as hoped for, but it did arrive. A pleasant reminder for all of us.
Our postcard never set off some magical series of events resulting in cultural exchange or lifelong friendship, but sometimes, it's just nice to get a handwritten piece of mail from loved ones who were thinking of you far away and long ago, isn't it? A few of our Galapagos postcards are still out there, sitting in an old barrel 600 miles off the west coast of South America, or perhaps being carried around in someone's purse, just waiting to be delivered to a warm household with a kettle of tea ready on the stove.
We love music. It's a big part of our lives here at home, and while away we kept our ears open, always ready to find something new and different.
Music is something universal; in every city, town, and village in every country we visited we heard rhythms spilling out of restaurants, cafes, and bars; being played by buskers on streetcorners, from passing cars and in bus stations. And yet everywhere it's a little different. Sure, we heard lots of Black Eyed Peas and Jennifer Lopez (in our unscientific analysis, her On The Floor is the most popular song in the world), but when we found the opportunity to get away from this type of generic and mass-marketed music, we were rewarded with some unique, regional sounds that we would never have been exposed to otherwise.
As much as we love all the photos we took while abroad, and cherish the few small souvenirs we brought back with us, our favorite music from the trip is undoubtedly better at bringing us right back to the time and place where we heard it. So here are our seven favorite songs that we discovered on our trip, along with a memory attached to each:
(Note that if you're reading this in an email, you probably won't be able to listen to the songs. Read the post on the blog for the full experience.)
Cosmic Sidewalks by Les Mentettes
While we were pretending to be locals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we decided that a natural thing to do would be to search out some live music, like we would at home. We scoured the local arts papers and blogs, put together a list of interesting-sounding acts, researched them, and ended up seeing a fantastic concert by Les Mentettes (also, listen / download / buy more of their music from the Les Mentettes bandcamp). We loved the dynamic performance by the 30-person pop-soul orchestra enough to buy a cd, which ended up providing a soundtrack for our South African road trip.
Nyandolo by Ayub Ogada
One of the most serene and relaxing locations we visited introduced us to one of the prettiest and most serene songs we heard all year. Sitting around in Shane's candlelit living room at Terra Khaya in the Amathole Mountains of South Africa, reading or playing cards, and listening to soft sounds emanating from an iPod dock running off a solar-charged battery, we were struck by this song's beauty and sparsity.
Mfan' Omncane by Dorothy Masuka
While we slowed down our pace and spent a few days feeling at home with our lovely hosts on the wild coast of South Africa, we heard lots of music local to the Transkei, local to South Africa, and from the rest of Africa. My favorite was this gem of African jazz by a Zimbabwean-born singer who emigrated to South Africa and sang many songs--including this one--in a Kwazulu dialect. If you listen closely, you can hear her making the several different types of clicks present in Kwazulu and Xhosa words.
Tonight You Belong To Me by Eddie Vedder
We walked into a small store selling local crafts on a sidestreet in Blantyre, Malawi. While we were browsing through the paintings, clothes, gifts, and other wares, a stereo played softly. At one point a song came on with a duet sung softly over what I thought was a kalimba (the omnipresent African thumb piano). I was struck by the duo's honest and playful delivery, and asked the clerk for the name of the artist, expecting some local singer, only to learn it was a cut off Eddie Vedder's album of ukelele songs.
I credit the experience for letting me hear the song without any prejudgment of what to expect; I probably would never have given the offbeat concept album a chance otherwise.
Hene Hene by ???
In India, the two-hour jeep ride from the train station at Siliguri up into the mountains to the hill station of Darjeeling wasn't all roses: our driver got into an accident before leaving the parking lot, then proceeded to get in a fight with the driver of the car he hit, and to drive way too fast and make incredibly aggressive passes on the tiny winding roads with sheer cliffs below us. I vomited from motion sickness before the end of it.
But something good did come out of it: we shared the back of the jeep with Vince and Dida from Oregon, traveling like we were. We spent a lot of time with them over the few days we spent in Darjeeling, walking through the hills and tea plantations, and slurping up delicious Tibetan soups. In one conversation, Dida told us that she was a Polynesian dancer and was a bit distraught because she had lost to the depths of her iPod the hula music she practiced with while traveling. I agreed to take a look at it, and was able to save the songs, and in the process of copying them back to her device, ended up with a copy of them on our computer.
Listening to these songs--that I've labelled Hula for Dida--brings me right back to those frigid mornings and piping hot cups of delicious tea.
Yehjo Halka Saroor Hae by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Here's another case of hearing music taken out of context: I've been aware of Pakistan's most famous musician (and Jeff Buckley's "Elvis") for a while, but never much appreciated him until we stumbled upon what may be India's warmest and cosiest hotel, in Varanasi. We spent a lot of time in our hotel's top-floor cafe, resting, gobbling up delicious Korean comfort food, and listening to consistently great, varied, and relaxing music.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's powerful voice and hypnotic instrumentals made a great backdrop to an afternoon of bibimbap and blogging.
I Love Rock and Roll Music by Koreana Hong
Finally, this song came on while we were eating Korean barbecue with my dad in Kathmandu, and we all instantly loved it. In my dad's words, "If Kill Bill had taken place in Seoul instead of Japan, this is the song the band would have been playing in the restaurant scene."
I couldn't find the full song online anywhere without speaking Korean, so this one-minute sample will have to do.
Traveling as an American comes with a lot of baggage (pun 100% intended!); I often felt as though we were starting in the hole whenever we interacted with others just because of what's printed on our birth certificates, and that we needed to dig ourselves out by being the most polite, friendly, and humble travelers in order to be considered somewhat decent human beings, on par with fellow travelers from Europe, Asia, or Australia. The question of what it's like to travel in relatively remote and very poor places as an American is something that was on the forefront of our minds all the time, although surprisingly, it hasn't been a common question asked in the months since we've returned to the US from our travels. I'm currently reading The Lunatic Express, by DC native Carl Hoffman, who spent several months traveling around the world on some of the worst and most dangerous buses, trains, and ferries so that he could write about the experience. I came across the following passage from a chapter where Hoffman takes a local Indonesian ferry, and I think did a perfect job of describing what it is like to interact with people who have preconceived notions of Americans, to let go of your own fears and prejudices, and try not only to connect with people you meet, but to trust them and realize that the vast of majority of the time, you will be rewarded, not punished, for putting your faith in strangers.
...the more I gave myself to the world, the more I made myself vulnerable by putting myself completely at the the disposal of people and situations in which I had no control, the more people took care of me, looked out for me. At first I had thought they were taking pity on me. But over the days and weeks ahead I started to understand something else, something that had been sinking in gradually over the months. Being white American conferred on me an automatic status. I represented power. Affluence. Vast numbers of the world were poor, watched American television and films, listened to American music, but had no real contact with westerners, and if they did it was often as chambermaids, taxi drivers, waiters-- none ever sat down in their slums or ate their food. [The] question -- why wasn't I flying?-- said much. It was a question I heard over and over again. Why wasn't I in first class?Why wasn't I on an express bus? Why wasn't I anywhere but here? My fellow travelers were right: I could have been flying. I could have been traveling in first class, in an air-conditioned cabin with a soft mattress and stewards. In silence and stillness. That I wasn't was like a gift to them, a mysterious one they couldn't fully understand but that they appreciated in a way I would never have imagined. And the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me. In the weeks ahead I would accelerate what had started gradually over the miles. I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. If they drank the tap water of Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangladesh, so would I. If they bought tea from the streetcorner vendor, so would I. If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers. Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me; it opened the door, made people take me in. That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated them and validated them in a powerful way. And as Lena waved away the cushion man and Mrs. Nova insisted I share her food, I realized I was in good hands, surrounded by women with eagle eyes. I could relax; murder or robbery was the last thing I had to worry about.
For Americans used to a certain level of comfort, cleanliness, personal space, and quiet while traveling, it takes more effort, and a determined willingness to come out of your comfort zone in order to experience transport "as the locals do", but it's also one of the only ways to really experience a country and its people as they go about their every day lives. Some of the memories I most cherish now (but didn't quite cherish then!) are the crazy, hot, beyond crowded, and endless bus rides we took through Eastern Africa, for they provided a window into local life that we would never have seen otherwise, and I think we were also able to give the people we shared those rides with a positive impression of Americans, an impression that ultimately may have taken them by surprise. It is these sort of exchanges that make certain types of travel worth every day spent with a sore behind, dusty clothes, and aching back.