Picturesque Destinations for 2016

I’m a sucker for quaint, charming destinations, places that are so picturesque they don’t quite seem real. In such locations, I find myself saying the same types of comments over and over.

Can you believe how gorgeous this is?

 Wow, can you believe this? 

It’s so gorgeous. 

It’s probably a good thing that I’m mostly travel by myself because, as my daughter can tell you, my constant declarations of amazement get annoying after awhile. This summer in Prague, she would respond in all her teenage sarcasm, Yes, it’s STILL pretty. Yes, I know how gorgeous it is. 

As you think about your travel plans for 2016, here are ten of my favorite places you might want to put on your list.

 

10. Chania, Crete, Greece. Chania is the second largest city on the Greek island of Crete, but I think it’s the city to see.   A Venetian lighthouse, a Turkish mosque that dates back to the 1600’s, and colorful buildings line the harbor. My favorite time of day was at dusk when the heat was less intense and the lights flicker in the sea.

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9. Bruges, Belgium. Bruges, or Brugge, as you will sometimes see it, is sensational. Canals, narrow cobbled roads, bicyclists, chocolate, waffles. Do I need to say more? This medieval town is so picturesque you might need to pinch yourself to realize it’s real. Though with the hordes of tourists that crowd the city in the summer, you might not get the fairytale feel you for which you were hoping. Even with the crowds, it’s a place worth visiting.

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8. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Situated in the middle of Bali, Ubud is nestled below a volcano and amidst terraced rice fields. There are temples and shrines (and Starbucks) that help give Ubud its unique, magical appeal.

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7. Prague, Czech Republic. Prague is known as “the City of a Hundred Spires.” Red roofs topped with ornamental spires create one of the most mesmerizing skylines. Prague amazed me from every turn, every vantage point. It’s an exquisite city. Baroque buildings and Gothic churches line cobbled stone roads, making it one of my favorite destinations.

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6. Venice, Italy. I feel like Venice is a city everyone knows about because it is such a gem of a destination. No cars, just boats on the canals. Narrow passageways and bridges create a maze-like experience for visitors trying to navigate their way around the city. A definite must-see destination.

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5. Eze, France. The village of Eze sits atop a hill in the French Cote d’Azur. Following the winding pathways up and down will lead you to hidden surprises. Cafes, art galleries, jewelers, perfume shops, and most important, views of the Mediterranean sea. You don’t need a lot of time to appreciate this village, but it’s definitely a great place to spend an afternoon.

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4. Arles, France. Sure Arles is full of Roman ruins, and that might be the appeal for some, but for me, it’s Van Gogh. Arles is where Van Gogh painted around 200 paintings including many of his famous sunflower paintings, and this yellow cafe. Van Gogh’s Arles is a place I could dream many days away.

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3. Hoi An, Vietnam. The Old Town of Hoi An is a perfect combination of yellow buildings, colorful silk lanterns, and ancient Chinese and Japanese temples and bridges. I biked around the city and found that after a day, there wasn’t much to see. It’s a gorgeous city (full of tourists), certainly one to see, but not one where you need a lot of time. If anything would have motivated me to stay longer in Hoi An, it would have been the food. Have I mentioned how much I love Vietnamese food? (Maybe that’ll be a future post.)

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2. Chefchaouen, Morocco. If you take a bus from Tangier (or Fez) to the middle of the Rif Mountains, you’ll find a blue oasis called Chefchaouen. This entire mountain village is painted different shades of blue, creating the most splendid sight. The blue medina is confusing but is nothing like the mazes of Fez and Marrakech. The tranquility of Chefchaouen makes it a great reprieve from the chaos of the bigger Moroccan cities.

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1. Santorini, Greece. Santorini is a popular honeymoon destination for right reason. The white and blue spilling down the rugged cliffs makes for one of the most dramatic and exquisite sights I’ve ever seen. Not to mention mesmerizing sunsets.

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My Top Asian Cities

I follow a lot of travel publications on my Facebook and Twitter feeds and lately I’ve noticed that lists have become commonplace in travel journalism. Is it lazy journalism or do the writers believe that their compilation of the Top 2015 Destinations will add something that other publications missed?

Today I came across an article on the Top 10 Asian Cities. As I clicked through the selected cities, I found myself shaking my head. They had it all wrong. Where was Kathmandu? Why wasn’t Siem Reap closer to the top of the list? Did they forget that India was in Asia?

So I decided to make my own list – you know, to set the record straight. In doing so, I realized why publications are inundated with lists – because they’re great fun to write. Compiling a list of your favorite destinations requires you to go back and reflect on all your travel experiences: the cities, the meals, the people, the feelings you had when you were there. For a traveler, going through these memories is the next best thing from reliving them.

And with that, here is my version of the top Asian cities.

Top 10 Cities in Asia 

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10. Ho Chi Minh is not a pedestrian friendly city and it probably wouldn’t have made my list if it weren’t for having a friend in the city. After a rough start in the city,  my friend, Nikos, picked me up on his motorbike. We cruised the streets – there’s something exhilarating about exploring a city from the back of a motorbike. The warm air against my face, the smells from the food stalls, the camaraderie with others at stop lights made me appreciate my time in HCM.
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9. Tokyo was the first city I visited in Asia. I had limited travel experience at that point and was on my first big solo trip. To say Tokyo was a shock to my senses would be an understatement, but when I felt I needed to escape the crowds, I would retreat into one of the many shrines or parks that offer a quiet oasis in a bustling city.

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8. Kathmandu. With its lush green hills, nestled just below the Himalaya mountains, Kathmandu is a gorgeous city. The sheer beauty of the city and the people make it a city to which I hope to return.

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7. Mumbai. There isn’t another city that challenges me as much as Mumbai. The juxtaposition of a modern life and an impoverished one is something I still struggle to understand. To be in Mumbai, is to witness two different lived experiences. I don’t know of any other place where the contrast is as vivid as in Mumbai.

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6. Hoi An is one of those cities you instantly love because it’s so quaint and picturesque  (and the food is incredible). It is overrun by tourists but renting a bicycle provides a way to escape the crowds and explore the city on your own.

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5. Varanasi has a pulse, an energy that is unlike any other place I’ve been. It has a polarizing effect: some people love it, while others hate it. It’s colorful, chaotic, and in-your-face. I loved it.

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4. Bangkok is an expansive city. There is so much to take in, and I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. What I love most about Bangkok, and Asia in general, are the food stalls. There’s something wonderful about the plastic tables and chairs that allow locals and travelers to enjoy a meal together.

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3. Hong Kong. I’ve always loved skylines, and Hong Kong’s is incredible. What I love most about the city, though, is its gritty side. It gives the city character. I love how the old and the new seamlessly come together to create a vibrant city.

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2. Ubud. Bali is a magical destination, and Ubud is its cultural hub. It would be a stretch to call Ubud a city, but I’ve included it in this list for its surrounding areas. Terraced rice fields, temples, rain forests – there’s so much beauty in the central region of Bali.
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1. Siem Reap.  I knew the instant I stepped out into Siem Reap that it had ahold of my heartstrings. The temples are awe-inspiring, but the people are what make this city so special to me. The Cambodians are warm and hopeful, despite all the hardships that they have encountered. I know that there will be many visits to Cambodia in my future.

Mumbai Living

Because of my work at Vacha, we spent 10 nights in Mumbai. For a person who likes to be on the go, 10 nights is a long time to spend in one place, especially in a place you’ve been before. The end of our stay in Mumbai seemed to drag on.

We didn’t have any agenda for our time in Mumbai, but there were a few things I knew I wanted Emma to see. So on our first free day, we took the train to Churchgate, which is in the heart of all the action. We grabbed a quick lunch at Burger King (yes, this still shocks us too), and made our way to the Gateway of India, which overlooks the Arabian Sea. I had it in my head that we could walk around for a bit and then sit and enjoy the sea breeze. I think I forgot what country I was in. The second we passed security, we were bombarded by people. Touts wanting to sell us stuff, beggars wanting money, families wanting us to pose for pictures. It’s so overwhelming. We were in and out in just a few minutes; it was far from the relaxing afternoon I had hoped it to be.


We also visited Mani Bhavan, the home where Gandhi once lived. I visited this house on my previous visit to Mumbai and remembered being so moved from seeing Gandhi’s things, reading about his life, all while walking through his home. I wanted Emma to have that experience. If I only took Emma to see one thing in Mumbai, this would have been it.

  
After we left Gandhi’s house, we headed to Victoria Terminus, which is one of my favorite pieces of architecture. It’s so exquisite. I think my enthusiasm for this was too much for Emma – she kept looking at me with a concerned face each time I said, ‘Wow. Incredible.’ But it really is that incredible. I just love it.

    

It was after these long days in the heat that we decided to spend Sunday at a nearby mall. Not how I normally spend my time when traveling, but I knew Emma would love it, and I needed a break from the heat. Turned out to be a fascinating place to people watch. It’s amazing to see how different the people inside the mall are from those just outside its doors. So many different lived experiences in Mumbai, which was made very apparent in the mall.

We spent a lot of time in our neighborhood, which was just north of most of the touristy places. We stayed in a nice residential area that had a lot of restaurants and cafes scattered about, almost tucked away. You had to know where to look to find them. I’d research each morning before we set out and take screen shots of places or streets that looked promising. That’s how I navigated the city each day – screen shots of various maps and addresses. This proved to be the only way to explain to the rickshaw drivers where you wanted to go and still sometimes it was extremely difficult and you’d end up in places different that where you intended. But, as I’ve learned, getting lost is the best way to find new places.

This Thai restaurant was my favorite find. We stumbled upon it on our way to another restaurant, so we changed our lunch plans. It was so cute and so good.

   

I was happy to board our plane to Jodhpur yesterday. I was ready for a change of pace.

Mumbai Transit

It’s amazing how quickly you fall into routines in a new place. I guess that is part of the thrill of traveling – going someplace where you know nothing and then slowly things begin to fall into place.

I’ve been to Mumbai before, but this time we’re staying about an hour’s train ride away from what I would consider the heart of the city. I wanted to be close to Vacha so I found an apartment in the Juhu neighborhood, which is a nice area right along the beach.

Our first night here was rough, but that was because we had no idea where we wanted to go, and we didn’t realize at that time that rickshaws will just tell you no. They are not as eager as the drivers in Varanasi who will take you anywhere.

Even though we’re getting more famiiar with the city, it’s never easy. Often I have to give directions or point the direction I want to go. Two days ago a driver didn’t take us to the closest train station but to a station two stops north, in the opposite direction that we were wanting to go. You learn to just go with things. You advocate what you want as best you can and then you just go with the flow. My phone’s GPS has been a great resource. It tracks your location even when it’s not on a cellular network, so I have been using that to help give directions. So many of the drivers are from other parts of India, so they don’t really know where you’re wanting to go. It’s not like you give them an address, and they drive you to that destination. You have to pick a major road that is near where you want to go, then tell them when to turn or stop.

Yesterday, when we set out to go to Starbucks, Emma noticed that the meter wasn’t turned on. So, I said ‘Meter. The meter is not on.’ The driver made some motion to indicate that it was broken. Turns out that we were going to Starbucks, so I knew that the ride costs between 20-22 rupees (about $.30). When I said that I knew the cost and it should be 22 rupees, the meter suddenly worked again, and the driver turned it on. It was never broken; he was planning to overcharge us.


It’s moments like that where I feel a sense of pride, like I’m starting to understand this place. But then in the same day, I end up taking an air conditioned cab not knowing that it’s 3-4 times the fare of a non-ac cab, and I realize that I don’t really know much at all.

We took our final train ride into the city two days ago. It was the same ride that was extended two stops because our driver didn’t know where to go (or that I don’t speak the language to properly communicate where we want to go). We bought our ticket for 20 rupees, which is so cheap and made our way to the platform. Train stations in India are busy. There are so many people that you move in a large mass; it’s overwhelming how many people are at each station.

We found where the women were standing on the platform, which always helps me find where the women’s car will stop. We joined them and waited. The first train was so full that we decided to wait for another train. The next train came, and it was just as crowded. There were so many women wanting on and almost as many wanting off, so it was a mess of people going in opposite directions. We managed to push our way on. Onto a hot, crowded train. There was standing room only, and we were packed in like sardines. Sweating. Bodies bumping into each other. It was miserable. When we arrived at our stop, and we had to struggle to get off the train, I decided that we would not be taking the train again.

Emma’s Summer Education

This spring semester I conducted a study on international service learning. I was interested in learning about how the students make sense of these experiences. Some researchers argue that these types of trip offer the most profound learning experiences you can have, while others argue that they reinforce colonial ideas and are highly problematic. I find truth in both of the arguments; I think there is a fine line that separates the two. I cringe when I see trips where westerns go to ‘save the people.’ Who are you to think that these people need you to save them?! Anyway, I digress.

In interviewing the students, I found that some programs were poorly executed and offered terrible volunteer opportunities, while the programs that emphasize immersion over volunteer were highly successful. The students went just to build relationships, learn, experience another culture. What I found was that I loved each of these students. There is something unique about a student who chooses to study abroad in South Africa or Cambodia over some European destination. These trips, even the poorly executed ones, had a great impact on these students’ lives. They came back to the states and quit activities that didn’t provide them with value and joined or created organizations that did. They sought out volunteer opportunities, found more enjoyment in the little things in life, were more intentional with their time, and some even changed their major.

As I interviewed the students, I couldn’t help but think of Emma and this trip to India. I wonder how it will affect her and her world view. There is no way you can travel to India and not have it affect you. Perhaps I won’t know for some time. It took me months to process India after I was here in 2010.

I may not know what she’ll take from this experience, but I know a few trivial things that she’s learned:

1. Brush teeth with bottled water

2. Bathe using two buckets

3. Go to the bathroom using a squat toilet

4. Haggle for a lower price

5. Tolerate extreme heat

6. Eat with fingers

7. Jump onto a moving train

I’m sure the list will continue to grow…

Rough Day of Transit

Wednesday was a rough day from start to finish. We arranged transportation to the airport at our hotel. The manager told me 8:00 am is when we’d need to leave to make our 10:45 flight, but when I went to check out at 7:45, I could tell the man working the desk had no idea we needed a car. So we waited. And waited.

I am one of those ‘get to the airport early’ types of people (I have never missed a flight.), so waiting was making me terribly anxious. We ended up leaving the hotel at 8:30, but still had to navigate our way through the maze of narrow passageways to the car.  Thankfully, we had two men from the hotel helping us with our luggage, or we would have missed our flight.

We ended up making it to the airport one hour before our flight time. The ticket printout that I had said that the check-in counter closes one hour before, so I was still nervous that we wouldn’t make it on time.

We were driving into the airport when our driver abruptly stops the car and begins asking for something. I’m not sure what, to be honest. I paid for the car at the hotel, but I’m guessing there was confusion about payment. I was so panicked at this point that I shouted something about missing our flight and needing to be in the airport now. I think my behavior shocked him enough that he once again started driving.

Long story short, we made our flight. They actually don’t close the ticketing counters until 45 minutes before takeoff so we had an extra 15 minutes, which we needed. Since we were so late to check in, out seats were ten rows apart from each other. I told Emma I could try to switch, but she said it was fine, that she wasn’t five years old.

For our time in Mumbai, we are staying at an apartment through Airbnb. The owner of the apartment is an Indian man who is married to an American woman. They divide their time between Mumbai and Miami, so they rent out their Mumbai home when they are in the states. The owner, Aryan, is in India now so he helped the driver find the place, then he came up and explained all the features of the apartment. You know – how to work the washing machine, TV, etc. This was the smoothest part of our day.

We hadn’t eaten anything at this point, so we set out to find food. We walked for sometime before deciding that a rickshaw was a better option, but we struggled to find one who understood English and knew where restaurants were. I guess a lot of the drivers in this area are migrants from other states, so they don’t know the city  very well. We were actually told no several times before we found someone who would drive us. It was a shock after Varanasi, where everyone is so eager for your business. We ate at the first restaurant we saw, which happened to be a decent place just outside Juhu Beach. Emma was happy to find tandoor chicken on the menu.

 After food and a shower, the hardships of the day wash away, especially when you’re in a nice, cool apartment. But it was an exhausting day. Sometimes transit days are like that, but they make you really appreciate the times where things go smoothly. And the struggles make for good stories.

Varanasi 

Emma and I are waiting for Amrita and Joseph at a Japanese Tea Shop. Inside it’s quiet and cool, but every time the door opens you’re reminded of the heat and the noise that’s just outside.


I’ve always said that India is like no other place you’ll visit, but Varanasi takes that to a whole new level. The city is intense. It’s crowded. Hot. Teeming with cows, goats, and dogs. And all the shit that comes from animals freely roaming the streets. Yet it’s magical, mystical, spiritual. It’s an incredible place.

We are staying at a hotel along the Ganges River, which is a lovely location once you’re at the hotel. Getting there is a major hassle. There are main roads that intersect the city, but close to the ghats, it’s only narrow pathways. No cars, only bikes, foot traffic, and motorcycles, which reign over the paths. You hear one honking, you better quickly move to the side for fear of being run over. We hired a car from the airport; they take you as far as they can, but then you’re on your own. With your luggage. On streets that are crowded with cows and shit. Lucky for us, an eager young Indian boy latched onto us and began walking with us, talking about politics.

Obama land, he told me when I told him that we were from the states or America, as you have to refer to the homeland here in India. He proceeded to tell me that Bush was bad and that Obama visited India. We agreed on politics, so I let him continue walking with us. When I told him where we were staying, he led the way, pointing at the signs that marked the route. I’m no liar, miss. This way. He led us all the way to our hotel. How we would have made it there without his help, is beyond me. As it was, we had to carry our suitcases up and down stairs. And it was so hot. I cannot imagine what we would have done without his help. I paid and thanked him, and then he left.


There have been lots of people helping us. Yesterday, we turned the corner on one of these narrow roads and found a massive cow staring us down. He was completely blocking the road. Emma looked and me, and I pointed towards the cow, motioning that that’s the way we need to. Neither of us are real comfortable slipping by or between cows. A little boy (like 7 or 8) saw us hesitate and came to our rescue. He slapped the cow’s behind. When the cow didn’t move, he backed into it with all his weight until he was able to nudge it to one side. We quickly went by, thanking him while we laughed at a young boy having to save us from the cow.

Getting lost on maze-like streets has had its advantages, everything is so picturesque. I have taken so many pictures of doors and colorful walls that I think Emma is starting to get annoyed with me. Yesterday, we stumbled upon the ghat where open cremation takes place. I have witnessed this before in Kathmandu, so it was nice to be able to explain some parts of it to Emma, though I did notice several differences. In Nepal, the women in the family sit back, completely removed from the ceremony aspect of the cremation until they are invited to sprinkle water on the body. In India, women don’t attend at all. We took a boat ride on the river today, and I learned from the man rowing that women stay at home because if they go, they cry, and then everyone cries. Gosh, we women are so emotional, aren’t we? I always find logic like this entertaining and ridiculous at the same time.

We also found the Nepalese Temple while trying to find our hotel. It was nice to share that with Emma given all that Nepal has gone through lately, and it is a place I have visited and very much loved.

This morning we started our day with a two-hour boat ride. We woke at 5:00 am so that we could watch the sunrise and beat the heat, but the most amazing thing happened – it was so overcast that it was comfortable. A breeze and no sun. It was so peaceful on the water. I loved every minute of it. Emma loved about the first 30-40 minutes. I found it fascinating and could go out every morning and never tire of the ride. The river is the livelihood of this city. There were people swimming, praying, bathing, doing laundry, playing cricket, selling marigolds. The cremation ghats were busy. Laundry was put out to dry. Women chatted in colorful saris, while their feet dipped into the water. Cows slept or ate trash. Monkeys jumped from building to building. There was so much to take in. An overload of your senses, which is what Varanasi is all about.