The hubs and I spent a lovely weekend in Venice celebrating a friend’s wedding. Afterwards, we had some extra time to spend sightseeing. I originally had a whole itinerary planned, with every minute accounted for, but a last minute visa problem cut our trip shorter than we had planned. As I flipped through the guidebook trying to figure out a new itinerary, I suddenly remembered the way I used to travel: Show up and wander. Get lost. Take in all the sights and sounds and smells of the city. And so, aside from an obligatory Saint Mark’s Basilica visit, because you can’t really go to Venice for the first time and not do that, wander is what we did. We meandered though narrow streets and across bridges, no deadlines or specific destinations, just exploring Venice. And it was lovely. Here are a few snapshots. Venice is a destination we definitely plan to return to with more time to spend, but this weekend was a lovely introduction to a gorgeous city!
December 31, 2014, aboard an Emirates aircraft somewhere between Madrid and Dubai, I experienced my strangest and most unforgettable New Year’s Eve.
First of all, I was alone.
Well, not exactly.
I was smushed in an economy cabin with three hundred other people. Across the aisle to my left: a cute, wide-eyed, curly brown haired toddler. It must have been way past her bedtime. I tried to guess which language of babytalk she was happily babbling to her parents in. Was it Arabic? Seated next to me on my right: an elderly Chinese man who said one word- “Whiskey!” – to every flight attendant who passed by, until I started furtively gesturing at them to cut him off. In front of me: A row of twentysomethings, clearly friends, wearing giant glittering party hats and brandishing sparkling wands, chatting excitedly in Spanish and trying to see out the windows even though we were in the middle row.
But I wasn’t with family or friends, and that was odd. I felt like an observer, peeking into someone’s house, watching strangers’ New Year’s Eve festivities through a snow-frosted window.
Time zones were muddled in my mind as they always are on international flights. But I guessed the time in Madrid was approaching midnight, because the Spanish friends were adjusting their party hats and passing out plastic champagne flutes and noisemakers. How they managed to bring a bottle of bubbly on this plane I do not know. I guess they bought it at duty free.
The toddler giggled and bounced on her mother’s lap. The flight attendant and her cart glided slowly down the narrow aisle. The gentleman to my right called out, “Whiskey!” She told him her cart had only tea and coffee. He looked confused.
What time would it be in Dubai? Or in Morocco, my home of the moment? What about in Nairobi, where my fiance’s family was waiting for me? I thought for a brief instant, then gave up on the math. In the air, time is suspended. On a thirty hour trip spanning three continents- Tangier to Madrid to Dubai to Nairobi- it doesn’t matter what time it is. There’s nowhere I could possibly go other than this plane and where it’s headed, no appointments I could possibly make other than our projected landing time, and my only clock, my cell phone, is turned off anyway. Until the wheels touch the runway, there is no such thing as time.
Except on New Year’s Eve, when wherever you are, even cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, you are pressed with a need to know what time it is, down to the very second, and so you latch on to the nearest time zone and find a way to count.
Diez… nueve… ocho…
The Spanish friends were standing on their seats, leaning on each other, touching the ceiling of the plane for balance, standing in the aisles. A blonde girl was passing out green grapes- to her friends, to strangers, to everyone who would take them.
Midnight struck. Not in Dubai, or Nairobi, or Boston, or Tangier, and probably not even in whatever place we were currently flying over, but in Madrid, it was midnight, it was January first, 2015. The Spanish friends were popping grapes into their mouths. Twelve green grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, twelve grapes for twelve months of good luck. Champagne glasses were clinking, people were hugging and kissing, a stranger hugged me, the elderly Chinese man was filming the Spanish revelers with one hand and waving one of his empty mini bottles with the other, a wide grin across his face, the baby was laughing, people were dancing on the seats of the airplane, cheering, laughing, dancing in the aisles. Flight attendants were telling everyone to sit down. No one was listening.
I wished my fiance was there so we could kiss on the stroke of midnight-in-Madrid and share this moment. I wished my friends and family were there so we could dance on the airplane seats and laugh together and tell each other happy new year thousands of feet above the ground. But I was also somehow strangely content. There was something peaceful about looking through the figurative windows at this moment of happy reveling, sparkling hats, green grapes, and joyous disregard for the concerned flight attendants urging everyone to sit down.
At last, the pilot’s stern voice over the intercom put an end to the reveling, at least the dancing on seats part of it.
This year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends, on the firm ground, six hours later than Madrid. But as we huddled together under umbrellas in Copley Square, too excited and full of good food and drink to care about the light drizzle, watching the glowing clock projected onto Boston Public Library, I had a bag of green grapes in my hand. Twelve grapes for twelve strokes of midnight. Twelve grapes for twelve months of prosperity, or at least, for the non-superstitious, twelve grapes to bring people together- whether friends in Boston or strangers on a plane somewhere between Madrid and Dubai- in a moment of newness and anticipation and hope.
We’re leaving for the airport early tomorrow morning. Home for the Holidays, here we come! Boston Logan is typically a relatively calm and uneventful airport, but around the holidays, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. While I procrastinate on my packing and present-wrapping, here are my all-time best airport stories, a sequel to my weird stories on trains and buses. Moments in airports that just made me do a double take and think to myself, “Wait a minute, did that actually just happen?”
Cairo International Airport, March 2015
With my cohort of fellow Fulbrighters, I boarded an EgyptAir flight from Casablanca to Cairo to Amman for a spring conference. Here are some highlights from our EgyptAir experience:
The plane food looked very questionable, so I did not eat it and was starving by the time we got to Amman. But that was okay because…
Everyone who did eat it got food poisoning.
The plane was dirty.
The pilot said a prayer over the intercom before we left, and I had very mixed feelings about this because on the one hand I entirely support praying for safe travels and often do so myself, but I also want some reassurance that the pilot has confidence in himself and the plane, you know?
We flew home in three separate groups (as some left directly after the conference while I and a few other stayed to wander around Jordan). The second legs of ALL THREE flights were canceled, no explanation given, and we all got stranded in Cairo overnight.
So there we were in the Cairo airport late at night, in need of visas to leave the airport and go to a hotel. We’d thought this through beforehand, as we’d heard about the cancellation before our flight left Amman. While we were waiting in the Amman airport, we had traded our leftover Jordanian dinar for Egyptian pounds rather than Moroccan dirhams. So we all had enough Egyptian cash on hand to purchase our visas.
An airport officer pointed to six currency exchange kiosks surrounding the baggage claim area and told us we could get our visas at any of them.
So we approached the closest kiosk.
“Hi, could I get a visa, please? Our flight was canceled. We’ll just be in Cairo till tomorrow morning.” (hands over passport and form)
“Certainly. That will be twenty-five dollars.”
“Actually, can I pay in Egyptian pounds?”
“No, just dollars or euros.”
“I don’t have dollars.”
“Yes, but I’ve been outside the U.S. for the past seven months. I don’t have any American money.”
“How about euros?”
“I don’t have euros. I only have Moroccan dirhams and Egyptian pounds- how much does the visa cost in Egyptian pounds?”
“I’m sorry, I can only accept dollars or euros. You can try one of the other kiosks.”
So we made our way from kiosk to kiosk, and this conversation repeated itself at every kiosk, and when we finally desperately tried the sixth and last kiosk, I lost it and yelled, loudly enough that everyone in the baggage claim area could hear me- “You’re telling me that I can’t purchase an EGYPTIAN visa with EGYPTIAN currency IN EGPYT?!???”
The man behind the kiosk looked around nervously, slid an Egyptian visa across the counter, and said in a hurried whisper, “Ok, ok, just this once, and just for you. You can pay in Egyptian pounds.”
So, PSA, if you’re going to Egypt, bring your dollars.
Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca), March 2015
As I sat in the domestic terminal, waiting for my flight to Ouarzazate, a stray cat wandered calmly through the departure gate waiting areas. People reacted exactly how they should have: They glanced at the cat, shrugged- just a cat- and went back to their newspapers or cell phones or coffee cups. A totally normal response that felt excessively strange to me because, let’s be real here, in an American airport this cat would have caused a terminal-wide code red freak-out. It’s a terrorist cat. There’s a bomb inside it. It’s an improvised explosive cat. It’s a cat full of drugs. Where is its passport? Where is its owner? It’s about to detonate! HELP! Run for your lives!
Marrakesh Menara Airport, April 2015
This is the story of how I learned a very valuable life lesson called you get what you pay for.
A friend invited myself and two other girls to go to Italy with her to spend Easter with her cousins. We all readily accepted. We found a $16 flight from Marrakesh to Rome on an airline called Vueling. A deal almost too good to be true. We snapped it up. We’d never flown Vueling before, but we knew Ryanair pretty well and we were cool with those super-cheap no-frills European airlines. We bought a second (and equally cheap) flight from Rome to Lamezia- our final destination in southern Italy- on Ryanair.
Marrakesh was a ten hour train trip away from where I lived, but trains in Morocco are inexpensive and comfortable and I had no problem making such a long trek if it meant that $16 flight and being able to travel with my friends. I took that ten hour ONCF journey, meeting up with one of the girls in Rabat along the way and traveling with her for the final four hours, and we all ended up in the Marrakesh airport by midnight to catch our 2:00 a.m. flight.
Yes, you heard that right. Our flight had a two a.m. departure time. Whatever, it was worth it for $16. And ours was the only flight departing from Marrakesh at anywhere near that time, making a delay less likely.
Oh, wait. Take that back. Two o’clock became two thirty, two forty-five, three… and we were still waiting at our departure gate. No explanation was given. Just as we were starting to get worried about missing our connecting flight in Rome, we were finally allowed to board.
So we boarded…
…and proceeded to sit on the runway for another hour.
Once again, no explanation was given for the delay.
We found a flight attendant and asked her what was going on. We told her we had a connecting flight on another airline that we were likely to miss at that point- would Vueling be able to do anything about that? Could she give us a ballpark estimate of when we might be taking off?
The flight attendant simply shrugged at us- “like a sassy diva,” my friend said, and I can vouch that that is a very realistic description and no exaggeration.
It was now past 4:00 a.m. and passengers were getting very antsy and starting to complain loudly.
A man in an orange vest came on the plane and told us, and I swear I am not making this up, that they would have to turn the plane off and turn it back on again. He quickly ducked out of the plane before anyone had a chance to ask questions.
Rebooting a plane apparently takes at least half an hour.
So we continued to wait.
Some passengers got out of their seats and loudly demanded to get off the flight. They argued back and forth with the flight attendants and the man in the vest who reappeared out of nowhere and another airline guy in a suit. The guy in the suit and the guy in the vest disappeared, then reappeared, and announced to everyone that the mechanical problem had been fixed and the plan was ready for takeoff, but since some passengers wanted to get off the plane there would be another forty minute delay while their baggage was retrieved from the hold.
And that was IT.
Pandemonium broke loose.
Passengers were screaming and yelling in Italian, Arabic, and English. Yelling at each other, yelling at the people getting off the plane, yelling at the man in the suit and the man in the vest and the flight attendants, who were of course all yelling back. Babies were crying. Some guys shoved each other. Someone punched the back of my seat. It was nuts.
So the pilot employed an age-old trick passed down from kindergarten teacher to kindergarten teacher for generations. He turned off the lights for five minutes until we all calmed down.
We missed our connecting flight in Rome and had to cough up sixty euros for a train ticket to Lamezia and then sit on a train for seven or eight hours.
At least we made it in time for Easter dinner!
You get what you pay for. And sometimes what you get is a good story.
Abed Amani Karume International Airport (Zanzibar), July 2015
My husband and I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar for the second half of our honeymoon. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately greeted by giant, bright yellow signs: All travelers must show proof of yellow fever immunization. I had my yellow WHO card with me, but my husband did not have his, though he’d been vaccinated about eight years before. We were given two options. “You can wait here for the next flight back to Nairobi, or we can vaccinate you here.” My husband chose the latter option. So the TSA officer- and, I repeat, not a nurse, the TSA officer- opened a mini fridge, took out a needle, showed my husband that it was sterile, and proceeded to jab him in the arm right there by the baggage claim.
I like to end this story with “annnddd now he’s autistic.”
PSA, get your yellow fever shot before you go to Tanzania and don’t lose your WHO card cause they don’t play.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), August 2014
The man in line in front of me at Starbucks was wearing cowboy boots and a giant cowboy hat completely non-ironically. Maybe that’s normal in Texas, but I’m an urban New England girl. It was weird.
Philadelphia International Airport, May 2016
On my way home from a girls’ weekend away, I was strolling through the Philadelphia airport in the direction of my gate, casually looking around, when, as I passed an information desk, the woman at the desk called out to me, “Starbucks is over that way!”
Should I be amused or offended? Do I really give off that strong of a “basic white girl” vibe? Should I work on that? Siiiiigh.
(The worst part: I actually was looking for a Starbucks.)
There are some other good ones too, but that’s it for today!
“Kayakstination”: Noun. (1) To procrastinate by plugging random airports on faraway continents into Kayak and searching for inexpensive flights to Bangkok, Istanbul, Tehran, Dakar, anywhere. (2) My favorite method of procrastination.
Today, I caught myself checking ticket prices to Lima next summer. Yes, we’re thinking of going to Peru! Kenya’s also on our travel menu for next year, as always, and I’m hoping we’ll have a chance to swing by Ethiopia while we’re over there. I love planning trips, even when I know they’re trips that might or might not happen. I love dreaming about visas being stamped into passports and foreign languages in my ears like music and that thrill you get when you step off the plane into a place you’ve never been before in your life and you don’t know what to expect but you know you’ll remember it forever. I want to hug the whole world in my arms. I want to go everywhere.
But sometimes I wonder if my mind is searching for elsewhere a little too much. If I’m not living in the moment enough. If I’m not appreciating the here and the now.
Earlier this year, a friend and I were wandering my urban neighborhood, savoring the precious short New England summer, when we discovered this gem. A tiny rose garden tucked away in one of the busiest parts of Boston. I found my way back to the rose garden last weekend. Those warm summer days were long gone, but to my surprise, the roses were still blooming, and a little bird was singing cheerfully in a fountain. An oasis of green and fuschia peace.
A few years ago, at twenty-three and in the midst of a full blown quarter life crisis, I was talking to my grandmother one day, and she told me, “Bloom where you’re planted.” She told me to treasure every moment of those uncertain, beautifully struggling years of early-twenties-hood, because I’d always look back on them and be thankful for them. She was right then and she’s right now.
I don’t want to miss any more rose gardens, whether physical “happy places” or intangible moments. This is my reality. This is my life, and though I’m here and not on a plane to somewhere far away, this life here- yes, here and now- has depth and beauty and adventure and there is always something to discover right around the corner if I’m present enough to look for it.
Travel is awesome, but adventure isn’t always a plane flight away.
I posted recently about one of the most peaceful and serenely beautiful places I’ve ever been. To continue the superlatives trend, here is the most interesting and seriously thought provoking place I have ever visited: the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the very heart of the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. My grandmother told me recently to be sure to write down all my travel stories so I can always look back on them years later, and this is one I’ve never written down yet.
When we Americans think of North Korea, we think of a brainwashed people, a stream of brash nuclear threats, a dictator whose hawkish craziness is the stuff that memes are made of, a college student sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign from a hotel… It almost feels unreal, right? When we think of the Korean War, we think of monuments and old war movies and history books. But to South Koreans, the war never really ended. The threat is constant and extremely close to home, not something that can be laughed off in memes and left up to the politicians to figure out. And going to the JSA forces us foreigners to confront the realness of all of this.
Driving through the demilitarized zone feels like a scene from a postapocalyptic novel. Barbed wire, a tank here and there, and an eerie stillness accompanied by the feeling that everything is a little on edge. You can only go to the JSA with certain group tours, and you’ll have a military escort. You’ll need your passport and you will have to sign a waiver saying that you recognize that you are entering a hostile area and if anything happens to you no one will be held responsible but yourself. (But most likely nothing will happen to you. Just don’t steal any signs, ok?)
Below, the “Bridge of No Return” traverses the border between North and South Korea. Prisoner exchanges happened here at the end of the Korean War.
At the JSA, two large, stately white buildings face each other, not far apart at all, guarded 24/7, always on alert. From the front steps of these buildings, North and South Korean soldiers watch each other through binoculars. Exactly between them, several small blue shelters serve as meeting spaces for the two sides of the border. As you walk into one of these shelters (and you usually can) and toward its back wall, you cross from South Korean territory into North Korea.Of course, a soldier will have his eye on you the whole time.
Zooming in on a North Korean guard watching our group through binoculars:
Yesterday, I was on my way to work as usual, standing idly next to a Dunkin Donuts kiosk in North Station, waiting for my train. An elderly lady sporting headphones and cigarette breath approached me and screamed hoarsely, “I’m gonna put your friend IN A BOX! TODAY!” When I looked around, startled, wondering who she meant by “your friend,” she leaned in close and yelled in my face, “THAT’S A COFFIN!” Then she walked away. Now, I don’t consider myself a superstitious person by any means, but not gonna lie, that one kind of freaked me out. I am happy to report that a full day has gone by and my friends are all still kicking.
Just a day in the life of an American public transit commuter.
I’ve had some rather weird experiences on buses and trains in other countries as well, and I think being outside my geographical and cultural comfort zone just added a whole other level to the strangeness. This isn’t a post about things that just seemed odd because I was a clueless foreigner and didn’t get it. This is a post about moments where I felt like okay, this is REALLY bizarre and I’m PRETTY SURE it’s not just bizarre to me.
Taghazout, Morocco, June 2015
After a day by the beach in the sunny hippy Moroccan surf town of Taghazout, three friends and I boarded a crowded bus for a half hour ride to Agadir. It was hard to see what with all the people packed on the bus, and hard to hear what with my Darija level being pretty basic, but there seemed to be some sort of altercation going on at the front of the bus between two teenage boys and the driver. One of them must have not paid his fare, or for whatever reason the driver did not want him on the bus.
Then a man in a neon vest that said “Agent de Controle” appeared on the scene. (This doesn’t exactly translate as “Agent of Control,” but that’s what my brain spontaneously registered it as, and I think this story’s a little funnier if you translate it that way.) He argued loudly with the two teenagers, and they stepped off the bus but kept shouting at him. A small crowd of young men had gathered outside the bus by this time, bickering loudly. Some of them seemed to be on the side of the driver and the Agent of Control and some were on the side of the fare-hopping teen.
Then the Agent of Control took off his jacket and handed it to the bus driver. An internationally recognized signal that this ish is about to get REAL.
Outside the bus, the bickering had degenerated into a giant shouting match, and the Agent of Control flung himself enthusiastically into it. And then it was a full on brawl. They were all shoving each other- the Agent of Control and the young men on his side versus the troublemaking teenager and his sidekicks. No one was actually hurting each other. No punches were thrown. There was just a lot of shoving and shouting.
Then they were all running, in a pack, shoving and shouting while running. They disappeared behind a building and reappeared a few minutes later, still shoving and shouting. They made a few laps around the building. Shoving and shouting. While the bus driver and all of the approximately fifty million sardine-packed passengers silently, calmly watched.
And then the brawl died down as quickly and mysteriously as it had started. The Agent of Control stepped back onto the bus, a little sweaty and out of breath, got his jacket back, waved goodbye to the bus driver, walked away, and we were on the road. A row of teenage boys in the back of the bus drummed and sang us all the way to Agadir. All in all, not a bad day trip. But seriously… what just happened?? What was that?
Paris, France, February 2012
When the man got on my metro car at Chatelet, he looked like any other Parisian commuter at rush hour. Thirties, short brown hair, glasses, nondescript clothes. He was holding a book. He did not sit down.
He opened the book, delicately cleared his throat, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to deliver a poetry reading.”
That’s so nice, I thought. On the Paris metro, it’s not uncommon to hear a musical performance in your subway car, a hat always passed quickly around the car before the next stop. So why not a poetry reading? How artsy and sophisticated. How French. I caught a glimpse of the book’s title. Poesie. Poetry.
The man cleared his throat again and began to read. A few lines in, I wrinkled my brow. What? Did he really just say what I think he just said? He kept reading. Yes he did, he sure did. Ouch, my ears, my ears! This was the dirtiest, most vulgar poem I had ever heard in my life. Thank goodness it was not a long poem.
He looked up. “Which shall I read next, ladies and gentlemen? Page 18 or 43?” He looked around expectantly. I did too, to see everyone else’s reactions. The tourists were chatting with each other in their languages and tuning him out. The French people were pretending he wasn’t there. They didn’t look shocked or offended. Just bored and mildly annoyed. Suddenly he was looking straight at me. “Mademoiselle, what will it be? Page 18 or 43?”
“Euhh… euhh… quarante-trois,” I stammered. What else could I say? Maybe page forty-three would be a poem about, I don’t know, daffodils. But his smile slowly spread into a wicked grin. “Page 43! Excellent choice. Excellent choice.” He flipped the pages. Well, merde.
This poem was, if possible, even more offensive than the last one. And keep in mind I wasn’t even understanding more than half of it because it’s not like they put words like that in high school French textbooks.
“Palais Royal, Musee du Louvre,” announced a female voice over the intercom, and the train slowed to a stop. “Have a lovely evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the man said, and he was gone. But not before I caught another glimpse of the book’s title. Not “poesie.” Pornesie.
Paris, France, January 2010
This one isn’t so much weird as scary. You know how that announcer voice in train stations always tells you to mind the gap between the train and the platform? Well, I was at Gare du Nord and there was a big gap and I didn’t mind it. And I actually fell in. I was carrying heavy suitcases and I lost my balance trying to lift them on the train and… actually, never mind how it happened. I fell in the gap, you guys. This is a real thing that actually happens to people. So, yeah, mind the gap.