Saturday, January 14, 2012

My ABCs of Travel

I saw this at Alex in Wanderland's site, and thought it looked like fun...

A: Age you went on your first international trip:
16. I went to Grenada, Spain, with a language study program (I am forever grateful to my awesome father, who talked my overprotective mother into letting me go.). We also traveled to Seville, Madrid and Toledo. Despite the fact that I lost 20 pounds on my diet of exclusively chocolate, bread and granitas (I was a really picky eater then and scared to eat Spanish food), I had a wonderful time. Appreciating the art (Seeing Velasquez's Las Meninas for the first time was breathtaking) and architecture (I loved the Alhambra so much I went at least once a week), and experiencing a foreign culture was incredibly meaningful and fascinating to me. I was immediately hooked on travel!

B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where:
The best beer I've ever had was in Prague, Czech Republic. I can't pick one brand, because they were all absolutely amazing (and so cheap, like as cheap as a Coca-Cola!). Just get whatever's on draft.

C: Cuisine (favourite):
Italian or Chinese.

Italian for the pastas, the delicious fresh produce, the gelato, the pizza...I ate the best pizza ever at a little sidewalk cafe in Naples: just tomato sauce, a square of mozzarella and a couple leaves of basil on crispy pizza bread. It was perfection.

Chinese for the incredible variety of flavors and tastes, the regional variety, the stir-fried vegetables (pea sprouts and garlic=so good numnumnum), the dumplings, the deep-fried meats...It's hard to pick one meal that was the best: maybe the first time I ate xiaolongbao (pork soup dumplings) at the flagship Din Tai Fung Restaurant in Taipei? Absolutely incredible. If I had to only eat one thing for the rest of my life, this might be it.

D: Destinations, favorite, least favorite and why:

Favorite Destination: I have a hard time just picking one. Rome, maybe for the history (I am obsessed with ancient Rome): plus, the food! I absolutely loved Japan: it's beautiful, full of history and art, there are so many great sites and museums, and the food is quite good. I also love China, in all its polluted, hectic, crowded insanity: it's one of the most exciting places on Earth, its historical and cultural attractions are absolutely amazing, the natural beauty is stunning, and it's really affordable (sadly not true for Japan, home of the $4 banana).

Least Favorite: Vietnam. The natural beauty is amazing, but I found the hostility, sexism and constant crime (violent and non-violent) disturbing (not to mention the rural poverty, which is exceedingly depressing). It's one of the few places I've been that I did not feel safe.

E: Event that made you say “wow”:
Most recently, watching a kecak dance performance at Uluwatu Temple in Bali as the sun set. The combination of music, dance and scenery was breath-taking.

F: Favorite mode of transportation:
Trains, no contest. I like being able to see the scenery while moving around freely: planes are too confined, driving too stressful, and buses are basically just awful.

G: Greatest feeling while traveling:
Seeing something in person that you've only read/heard about.

H: Hottest place you’ve ever traveled to:
Taipei in summer 2003; the Taklamakhan desert in Xinjiang, China

I: Incredible service that you’ve experienced and where:
Maybe the ryokan (traditional inn) in Japan, where the hostess put our shoes on our feet for us. Or Bali, where whenever we went out to eat, the servers would take my infant daughter off and amuse her throughout our entire meal, leaving me free to eat at my leisure.

J: Journey that took the longest:
Maybe the journey from Warsaw to St. Petersburg, during which we were hauled off the train during a stopover in Belarus, and then deported for failing to bribe the customs agents appropriately. We had only a 50 Deutsche mark in currency, and used it to bribe the conductor of the train the Belarussian border agents tossed us on. Luckily it all worked out, and we ended up in Prague. What a happy ending to the multiple-day ordeal!

The journey that felt the longest was either the overnight ferry from Italy to Greece, during which I became horribly seasick (despite my confidence that I would overcome seasickness with willpower), or the bus ride from hell in Vietnam, during which we were jammed in three to a two-seat section (and the peasant lady we shared with fell asleep on my shoulder for hours), the bus broke down, chickens ran down the aisles, and someone attempted to pickpocket us with their feet. It took about 18 hours to go a very short distance. Never again.

K: Keepsake from your travels:
Handmade felt rug from Xinjiang, made by the Kazakh minority: I saw one being made by nomads in their yurt. I bought two at the bazaar in Kashgar, where I had to haggle with a Uighur merchant while sipping extremely sweet tea: the other went to my sister as a wedding present.

L: Let-down sight, why and where:
The Great Wall of China. I made the mistake of seeing it on one of the many dreadful package tours: extremely crowded, hot, polluted and with tortured sun bears. Go independently.

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel:
In the Court of Lions at the Alhambra. It was the most perfect courtyard I'd ever seen, and thinking about its long history (including the fact that the royals who bankrolled Columbus had stood in that very spot) made it even more special.

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in:
I've been lucky enough to stay at a fair number of nice hotels, thanks to generous relatives and traveling in non-wealthy countries. The nicest so far was the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok. The views, service, food and amenities were all amazing: the hotel even has its own boat, on which you can cruise across the river.

O: Obsession – what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?
I'm not very good at taking pictures of anything: I get caught up in the moment and forget all about it. Maybe ruins? I have a lot of pictures of antique buildings in various states of decrepitude.

P: Passport stamps – how many and from where?
I'm going to assume this means how many countries visited: 25. In order of visits: USA (born and raised!), Spain, England, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic, Russia, Austria, Italy, the Vatican, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Mexico, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where:
Most recently, Haw Par Villa: a patent medicine millionaire's personal vision of the afterlife, Chinese mythology, and classical Chinese literature. Weird and very personal, it's unlike anywhere else I've seen.

R: Recommended sight, event or experience:
How to recommend just one? Maybe Lijiang, in Yunnan province, China. It's stunningly beautiful, exotic, unusual, and historic: and won't be that way for long, probably, as it now has an airport and increasing numbers of Chinese tourists. The original Shangri-La, with orchids, glaciers, an interesting ethnic minority, and charming cobblestoned streets and villages.

S: Splurge – something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:
Seeing cultural attractions. This can get pricey when you factor in transport, especially in places without good public transit, or to out-of-the-way locations. But riding an elephant through the upland jungles of Vietnam, seeing ancient ruined cities along the Silk Road, or visiting a gold mine on Japan's Sado Island was completely worth the money.

T: Touristy thing you’ve done:
I have a great need to visit the most famous attractions of any place I visit, even when that's probably a bad idea (the Great Wall; Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco; the whole city of Saigon). Usually they are famous for a reason though (the Sistine Chapel, the Forbidden City, the Tower of London).

U: Unforgettable travel memory:
Seeing the Roman forum and surrounding areas in person. The Colosseum, the temples, Trajan's column, the Palatine: it was incredible. The most exciting part for me was seeing the Rostra, where so many famous Romans (Cicero, Mark Antony, Caesar) actually stood to give speeches to the mob; and where Cicero's ears were nailed after he chose the wrong side in the civil war.

V: Visas, how many and for where?
Russia, Turkey, Taiwan (4), Vietnam, Cambodia, China (5), Indonesia

W: Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?
I don't really know anything about wine, so this is an uneducated opinion, but I loved the wine in Greece (retsina is so tasty!) and Italy (it really was amazing, even when you were ordering only the house wine like me).

X: eXcellent view and from where?
So many! Most recently, the view of the ocean off Tanjung Rhu and the view of Langkawi from Gunung Mat Cincang will be something I'll remember forever.

Y: Years spent traveling:
If you count living as an expat, two in Taiwan, one in China, and six months in Singapore, plus four months traveling in Europe (one in Russia), three in China, and then the rest. Let's call it 4.5 years.

Z: Zealous sports fans and where?
I avoid sports whenever possible. Maybe the British for soccer, the Chinese for pingpong, and the Japanese for baseball?


  1. I'm a new follower of your blog- but I was struck by your experience in Grenada as a 16 year old. I also studied abroad when I was 16 in Grenada- and went to Seville, Toledo and Madrid. We have to be close to the same age (I just had a daughter myself, who is 7 months old). Any chance we were there at the same time? I don't remember anyone named Grace so perhaps it was the same program but not the same year- I was there in 1996.

    I enjoy your blog! We are very similar. I love travel myself and just last winter was in Taiwan, visiting my sister who lives abroad there.

  2. Hi Amy, I'm glad you like the blog!

    I was on the program in 1995, so perhaps we just missed each other! Unfortunately I don't remember the program's name (isn't that sad? I must be getting old :). The other cities were an optional add-on after the main program was over if that adds any info.

    It's cool you went to Taiwan, since not many people have (at least not as tourists). I'm looking forward to reading your old posts about the trip.