Boston’s snow record: Enough yet?

Here’s an update for my dear readers. You know how I said no adversity builds character like snow adversity? (Well, something like that.) Well, Boston has now officially busted the record. Although the snowfall in the metro area this past Sunday was uneven, apparently what counts is that Logan Airport logged in 2.9 inches, giving the city an inch beyond the previous record set in 1995-96, the year when it seemed that half the people on my block in Cambridge went out (once they could get out their front doors) and bought Subarus so they could drive out of drifts in the future. I was one of them.

By pure happenstance, and no doubt because I’m a glutton for punishment, I was back in Boston over the past weekend, so I was present when the city set a new record for “seasonal snowfall” (July to June). 108.6 inches, folks!

There are so many ways to break records. By the end of February, Boston had already broken the previous record for “winter snowfall” (December through February) by nearly 8 inches, and the previous record for total monthly snowfall: 64.9 inches this February, compared to 43.3 inches in January 2005. And February of course is three days shorter. This was the February that was: an average of over 2.3 inches of snow per day.

Being both character-pumped and just a tad nuts, Bostonians are actually proud of all this—not that they had anything to do with it, really, except for helping to put too much CO2 into the atmosphere along with the rest of the country.

If you want an animated comparison of the seasonal snowfalls in Boston, you can find it on USA Today. We won’t drag in other places; there are parts of the world that can chalk up a lot more, almost any old year, than this. But this is Boston’s personal best, if I may take a liberty with that phrase. There are a few in Boston still gleeful about the possibility that more may come down (remember the April Fool’s Day blizzard in 1997, Bostonians?). But I think, until the last of those huge snowpiles dwindle into mud and a few crocuses pop up, the snow enthusiasts may keep their hopes a little quiet.

And next winter, look out Florida, Arizona, and points south! Can’t tell you how many people I’ve overheard planning winter migrations for next year.

And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone—with congratulations to the city of Boston for a more inclusive St. Paddy’s Day Parade!

For more information:
Want to know how global warming could cause colder winters and heavier snowfalls? Try these sources:Union of Concerned Scientists, “It’s Cold and My Car is Buried in Snow. Is Global Warming Really Happening?”; Joe Romm, “The Climate Science behind New England’s Historic Blizzard.”
Did you know that the National Weather Service (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the federal government) relies on a network of volunteers to get accurate measurements of snowfall, and of other precipitation? You can look at the official instructions for making snowfall measurements, or some basic practical guidelines. And then, if you’re interested, you can volunteer to become a precipitation spotter.

Posted in General, Holidays, Reflections | Leave a comment

Snow biz for travelers

You know how they say that adversity builds character? Naturally you know what you need the character for: handling more adversity. Here in New England we’ve been undergoing some major character-building in the past two-three weeks, with snowstorms of all sorts going way beyond the one-two punch. Latest count, I think, is four but I might have missed one or two small ones.

From a traveler’s perspective, the more extreme of these “snow events” (don’t you just love that euphemism!) forces the character-building on you because you just can’t get away. During The Blizzard, aka Storm Juno, that dropped record amounts of the white stuff in Boston (January record), Worcester (all-time record), and a few other cities, and blew a generous supply around after dropping it all over the state, the state government closed roads and highways and cities and towns restricted on-street parking. Supermarkets hosted mass psychotic breaks just before the storm (i.e. last-minute pre-disaster shopping before the emergency, and if this is a preview I hope I’m not here for Armageddon), appointments got canceled by the zillions, and anxious travelers bombarded airline switchboards to find out whether they were going to take off. But then as the storm moved in all grew quiet: the Boston airport closed the night before the worst hit; bus routes and Boston’s T (subway that’s not always sub) shut down; cars disappeared from the road; and everyone settled in with Netflix, HBO or whatever cable offered, popped the popcorn and prayed the lights wouldn’t go out.

So far so good. It’s New England. We pride ourselves on the depth to which the snow buries the car or the way the dog disappears (on purpose or not) under the surface of the stuff on the first walk out of doors. Newspapers and TV stations run comparison tables showing the ten biggest snowfalls in the past hundred years and we’re thrilled if this one is in the top three. Schools already plan for a certain number of snow days every year and kids hope they’ll get to use them all. Snowplow drivers collect lots of overtime pay. Travel plans get redrawn.

I felt the blizzard’s impact even before it arrived, as did so many others. I was supposed to drive into the Boston area to spend a few days seeing friends before flying out for a long-planned trip to Austin, TX. As the forecasts grew ever more dire, the chicken in me (there’s a lot of it) recalled all the difficulties of parking during a snow emergency. I lived there for 20 years; I know what it’s like trying to find a safe place to park on overcrowded streets when everyone else is trying to do likewise. I knew I could get there before the snow, but could I get out of the snow? The chicken won, and thank goodness it did, because Boston got New York’s share of the storm as well as its own.  But the major roadways were cleared within a day, and I made it into Boston two days after the blizzard, in time to avoid helping to shovel though not in time to avoid another wee little bit of snow that started coming down as my plane took off.

New England rose to the challenge, sat still for the duration, and then heaved the snow off roads and sidewalks with the panache born of long practice. Character had been built.

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Half dug out

While I was in Austin, more came down. I got back to discover my car, parked in a friend’s driveway, capped by another foot of snow and surrounded by more. Dug out, drove west (just as another snowfall started), dug out again a day later at home. Enough already! We won’t go into the numbers. There’s another one coming today. We’re getting a bit punch-drunk with all this character-building.

So what does snow mean for us travelers? For some in snow zones, it could mean decamping to southern parts – like a friend’s neighbor, who spends every winter in Florida. My uncle, having tasted the dubious joys of extreme winter in northern Wisconsin last winter, is waiting it out this year in far-southern Arizona. And another friend is even now packing to get to Cuba for her annual winter escape. Certainly severe winter can make escape travel a lot more fun.

For those who can’t or won’t temporarily relocate, and who have to travel for work, family, or other pressing reasons, it means staying flexible. Flying means being ready to change flight bookings quickly, or playing the Russian roulette of waiting for the airline to cancel your flight (in which case, you don’t pay the penalties you may be whacked with if you instigate the change). Recent experience shows that we can’t count on rail or bus transportation during/after the worst weather. And don’t get me started on what happened to simple commutes in the greater Boston area as the MBTA, suffering under inadequate reinvestment for decades, crumpled under the weight of storm after storm.

As for driving any distance, there are several basic pieces of equipment you no doubt already have in your car if you’re a New Englander: a working radio, plenty of fuel in the tank, a snow shovel, a good brush/scraper, plenty of wiper fluid, a bucket of sand, a flashlight with good batteries, a well-charged mobile phone, a AAA card or equivalent, and enough common sense to stay off, or get off, the road if things are getting really bad. The really cautious also take blankets or the much smaller and possibly more effective survival blanket. (Even I, the chicken, don’t go that far. Do I have all of the other stuff? Give me a day or two.)

And after the storm ends and things are sort of cleaned up, there is nothing quite as magical as a drive through a freshly snowed landscape, once you manage to make it out of town through the snowbanks and snafus.

Posted in General, Reflections, Tips, Transportation | 1 Comment

Make your next trip a road trip

Planes will get you there faster, always barring those proliferating delays. Trains will get you from Point A to Point B without your having to think about it. But for thoroughly enjoying your entire journey, my vote goes to road trips!

For far too many recent years, because I was living in China, I didn’t voluntarily travel by road. I know people who do road trips there, but I’m convinced they either have steel for backbones and titanium for nerves, or they are on some kind of wonder drug that makes you view the insane moves of fellow drivers as just part of the scenery. (I would extend this observation to places like India too, where even though almost everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road by law, there are still drivers trying to finesse things by driving on the wrong side of the wrong side of the road. This is one instance in which two wrongs do not make a right; they make chaos and carnage.) As I was saying. I could have driven in China; I had the use of a car and I even got a driver’s license, but after several of my past lives passed before my eyes in various near-things, I decided the cosmos was telling me something. Reader, I chucked the keys.

Since I had to travel frequently for work, I moved around a lot by air and rail. Chinese airports and airlines rate somewhat higher in my view than American ones, which isn’t saying much. Over time, though, I came to regard the high-speed train system as the bee’s knees and cat’s pajamas rolled into one. When there was a choice between plane and train, eventually I opted always for train. Still, it didn’t feel ideal.

Upon returning to the US and getting the keys to a shiny new Subaru (living in New England winters = you need all-wheel drive), I was once more mobile in an environment where I could more easily discern  the insanity patterns of fellow drivers. (This is Massachusetts, and I would never claim that people drive sanely here. Especially in Boston, where Dr. Jekyll does everything else and Mr. Hyde does the driving.) I was ready for some exploring, and that sweet little Subaru has taken me to Boston and back and the Hudson Valley and back numerous times, transported me solo all the way to North Carolina and back, took me with a couple of friends up through Maine to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and whizzed my uncle and me up to Vermont, looping back through the western reaches of Massachusetts. And I’m looking forward to essaying out to the tiny town in northern Michigan where I grew up, to Wisconsin to visit my uncle, and maybe if I can find a stalwart friend with the time and gumption, even around the western states.

Why do I relish the prospect? Here, based on my recent experience on the road, are seven reasons for taking to the road:

1. You can have lots of anticipatory fun planning routes.

Yes, you can plan which flight or train to take and what to do once you get there, but when you’re going by car, you have so many more options. Take the Interstate or some of those “blue highways“? Find points of interest along the way? Estimate your traveling time so you can reserve a motel or B&B in a nice spot? We still have the traditional resource of AAA, which, along with its famous TripTiks, provides for its members plenty of road maps and travelers’ guides. I’ve already collected enough of those to make up the price of membership. (Can’t help it; I’m a maphead.) Those can’t tell you the finer points of navigating your way out of or into cities and most towns, but fortunately we now have MapQuest and GoogleMaps to help us with that. I generally use both, just to see where they differ. MapQuest also has a lovely feature in its detailed directions telling you when you know you’ve overshot your mark. Both of them have wonderfully detailed spot-maps for turns and exits along the way, which you can print out along with the directions. Many trees have suffered to provide those printouts, but I’ve planted a few more to make up for it. And then there’s TripAdvisor, and all those Lonely Planet guides as well as the web site– if you’re obsessive about never missing a good travel site, you can go back and forth among all these resources for days, happy as a pig in you-know-what, digging up the dirt on things like dinosaur footprint sites and Lover’s Leap Baptist Church (not kidding, saw a sign for that in Anstead, West Virginia) and Hubcap Ranch (also not kidding; I once saw the real thing in northern California) until you feel like your planned route is hitting enough sweet spots. Full disclosure: you’ll never get to see everything; this could frustrate you, or it could make you start anticipating the next trip out that way.

2. You can picnic on the way.

No packaged airline food, no overpriced airline restaurants; no mystery items in the railway café car. Gather up paté or sliced ham or roast chicken, a baguette or nine-grain bread, stilton and cheddar cheeses, green salad, perfect peaches or cut-up mangos, and toss them into a cooler before you start; or stop along the way to load up at delis or farmers’ markets or bakeries that look enticing. (The latter approach is next door to heaven if you happen to be road-tripping in France!) Then find a scenic overlook, quiet little glen or peaceful meadow, or small-town public park, pull off the road, and munch your lunch as you slow down and breathe the local atmosphere. You’ll probably meet some of the local birds who like to investigate the menu and see if anything’s left for them. You might meet local ants or yellow jackets or squirrels too, but I’m sure you won’t let those faze you. Remember how much you pity those poor people strapped into their airplane seats eating their boxed meals off bouncing tray-tables. (Naturally wine and spirits are contra-indicated for the driver if you plan to continue after the meal, but no reason the passengers can’t imbibe if they’re of legal age.)

3. You can see more along the way, and surrender to serendipity.

Maybe you can see from the train, but often the train runs on tracks recessed so deeply you can’t see over the banks, or it’s screened by trees. And you certainly can’t stop it at an interesting spot to get a better view. From the plane window maybe, barring cloud cover which often gets in the way, you can see what things look like from six or seven miles up. From the car, you get to see a lot more, and there may be visual treats waiting for you around every bend in the road. Farms offer many possibilities: spherical vs. rectangular hay bales; Brahma cattle, longhorns, Dutch belted cows; apple or cherry trees in bloom; pick-your-own signs; vineyards and wineries. Spectacular vistas in some regions of the country: I recall a road trip with my friend C (she of king-of-Nepal fame) in Navajo country, when we exclaimed Wow! every time we topped a rise because the scene was so breathtaking you couldn’t get more than that out. The grand finale was an endlessly changing technicolor sunset as we drove west towards Flagstaff that just kept getting more and more spectacular until the sun had had enough and waved off. But more ordinary sights can be just as delightful: little splotches of Norman Rockwell visions as you toddle through Smalltown USA, or visions of medieval Europe as you roam the roadways in southern France.

And if you want to make an unplanned detour to take advantage of something like a national historic site, it’s so easy to do. On my two-day way back from North Carolina last May, I realized the first morning that Appomattox Court House was only about twenty minutes off my route, and made a snap decision to reroute myself  past there and skip wandering around downtown Charlottesville.

4. You can sample local goodies and local events.

Some of these you may find out about while you do your advance planning, but leave yourself open to tips from locals, especially your hosts at bed-and-breakfasts. You can take advantage of the pick-your-own strawberry field, or pop into the local historical museum, or visit the nearby harvest festival or waterfall. A special thrill for chocoholic me, after staying overnight in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, was to stop in at the Ganong company’s Chocolate Museum. The displays were sometimes inspirational, no doubt enhanced by the museum’s charming custom of placing large platters of free, freshly made chocolate candies at several junctions in the museum, and by the thoughtful planting of a chocolate shop right at the entrance of the museum.

And if any place advertises itself as the national or world capital of anything or featuring its world-renowned whatever, sample it! I still recall the dinner of fresh scallops I enjoyed while gazing out the restaurant windows at the Bay of Fundy tide going out in Digby, Nova Scotia, “Home of the World Famous Digby Scallops.”  (If you go there: also check out the Admiral Digby Museum, which will put you in the mood for some of the other funky little museums you can find dotting Nova Scotia.)

If you check ahead, you may be able to arrange your trajectory to hit a local annual event. In Digby, we just missed the gigantic motorcycle Wharf Rat Rally, which oddly enough did not quite disappoint us.  (25,000 motorcycles? Oh my.)

5. There are no baggage limits.

Excepting the size of your car and the number of passengers, of course. As a habitual overpacker, I am notorious among my friends. One friend once said I packed for a recreational bike ride like some Victorian explorer heading off to a new continent. I have managed, on a three-person road trip, to fit the following items into the car: a large ice chest, four suitcases, two laptop computers, extra blankets and pillows, numerous magazines and books, a panoply of maps, laundry detergent, a large bottle of window-wiper fluid, two kinds of bug spray, a hairdryer, several towels, a walking stick, several umbrellas and raincoats, bags of extra groceries, and cameras for three.  There was room for more, and a good thing, because through some mysterious alchemy, things were acquired on the way, including some of those Ganong chocolates and six quarts of wild Maine blueberries. Try that if you’re relying on planes!

6. You can even take your dog.

Granted, you could take your dog on a plane, but if I were your dog I would probably never forgive you. I suppose you could take your cat or your canary by car too, but my bet is your dog would be a better traveling companion and add fun to the experience. One of my sisters and her family take the family’s golden retriever along when they go to the Outer Banks every summer, and they know they’re getting close when Stella ecstatically scents the ocean breezes, way before her humans can. The ritual beginning of every stay is the dog’s race down to the beach to jump into the water and then run around on the beach like a dog in doggie paradise. Once you’re at your destination, walking your dog is also a great way to start conversations with some of the local folks.

Many motels, B&Bs, and campsites allow pets.  You can find pet-friendly accommodations all over the world via the Bring Fido site. To prepare for road trips with Snoopy, check out the advice offered by ASPCA or the American Kennel Club.

7. You never have to deal with ticket counters, airport check-in, security inspections, baggage claim, overbooked flights, train delays—and you might just get to take a ferry.

Need I say more?

Please share your own road trip experiences using the Comment link below. And if you do think cats or canaries make great travel companions, feel free to sound off.

 

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Six reasons for travels with my uncle: Photo essay

The last time my uncle was about to visit me and I told friends he’d be with me for nearly two weeks, their first impulse was to offer sympathy. They couldn’t have been more mistaken! I’ve now traveled twice with my Uncle L, and both times it has been both fun and mind-opening. He may not be an Aunt Augusta and, barring a passion for dahlias, I’m certainly no Henry Pulling (see the Graham Greene novel Travels with My Aunt for details), but my uncle has made even minor excursions into a fest of lovely surprises.

Travel with a parent could mean hauling (and unpacking) a lot of invisible Baggage, but all bags are likely to be the visible type when you go on the road with any other older relative. So here, in case you are contemplating travel with someone who fits that description, I’m providing a list of reasons for travels with my uncle that you could use as a yardstick. And since both Uncle L and I are avid photographers, this is also a good place to treat you to a photo essay.

Reason #1: You go places you would never ever go with a friend or partner (or on your own).

This is not to say that we ruled out going places I’d go with anyone else, but my uncle has some very specific interests that we indulged whenever possible. Churches come at the top of that list.

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The church Emily Dickinson didn’t set foot into — even though it was right across the street and her brother was the minister.

As a retired minister, he is especially attuned to church architecture and church practices. So when he visited me recently in Massachusetts, we not only stopped to admire the exteriors of churches, but even went to one of the regular church suppers at the old Congregational Church up the street from me.

 

 

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Shanghai, Protestant church by People’s Park–closed for renovations

And when he visited me in China in 2009, he was especially curious about churches there. We tried getting into the generic-Protestant church across from Shanghai’s People’s Park but it was closed for renovations. We stopped outside the Shanghai Catholic Cathedral, and found that it’s become a photo-shoot site for local couples getting part of their obligatory series of wedding pictures taken outside places they’ll never go back to, in clothes they’re only renting for the picture.

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Wedding photo shoot outside Shanghai Catholic cathedral

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Outer entrance to Beijing’s Chongwenmen Methodist church

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Waiting for entry to church at Beijing’s Chongwenmen Methodist Church

We had better luck in Beijing. By the time we got back there, my uncle was determined to find a Sunday service. After a bit of online research, I discovered the one non-generic Protestant church in town, the Chongwenmen Church, which identifies itself (though not in its sign out front) as Methodist. The entrance area was Chinese in flavor, and the organization of attendance was a bit Chinese as well. There was another service going on when we arrived, and a small and growing crowd was milling around in the courtyard.

As the time drew near for the end of the previous service and the start of ours, people began lining up. We and the other few foreigners were asked to go to the front of the line, even in front of some very elderly ladies who were resting on folding stools. That seemed unfair to me, but the organizers insisted. As it turned out, this was intended to make it easier to shepherd us towards the section reserved for Foreign Guests, which was equipped with receivers and headsets for English translations of service and sermons. I have no pictures of the interior, alas, except in my head. My uncle observed that the interior was set up like American Methodist churches of 70 years ago, and that the sermon (which emphasized obedience to Authority) was not the type you’d be hearing from most American Methodist pastors today.

You’d never get that from a guidebook.

Reason #2: You get more photo ops.

Most foreigners look really… foreign to most Chinese, and especially to children. That can make them standoffish. But two foreigners who are best known and fondly regarded are Santa Claus and Colonel Sanders. Thanks to them, any older white guy with white hair and a beard is instantly “recognized”—and, I think, more welcomed than most other Westerners poking their noses in would be.

Smiles from a worker at park in Xi'an

Smiles from a worker at park in Xi’an

Inspection by a kid in village on Xi'an outskirts

Inspection by a kid in village on Xi’an outskirts

Fortunately for me, Uncle L looks enough like Santa and the Colonel, in Chinese eyes, that people often responded naturally and for long enough that I could get a good picture.

Kids in Dunhuang back street

Kids in Dunhuang back street

Whether or not my uncle was in it! Sometimes the reactions came while he was standing next to me. So I could get full honors (if I weren’t so honest) for eliciting the response myself.

 

Scholar with scholar, on the Spirit Road at Beijing's Ming Tombs

Scholar with scholar, on the Spirit Road at Beijing’s Ming Tombs

 

Finally, although a friend or partner could possibly help out this way, I have to credit my uncle with adding particular gravitas to photos along with scale perspectives or muted visual jokes. These could be especially apt, like the pose of my Ph.D.-holding uncle in front of a statue of an imperial scholar on the Spirit Road a the Ming Tombs. (That is a cap, not a doctorate, in his hand.)

 

 

Reason #3: You get more time to observe carefully.

Obviously you could do that on your own, too. But sometimes, humoring a traveling companion who wants to just sit and watch, or roam around taking photos, is a good way to slow yourself down and take more in. And whom are you more likely to humor than an older relative?

Dancing in Shanghai's Fuxing Park

Dancing in Shanghai’s Fuxing Park

Traveling with my uncle made me soak up more ambience even in places I’d been to or through numerous times. (I exclude the Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’an. Enough already.) On a weekend visit to Shanghai’s Fuxing Park, where I would ordinarily walk past the couples dancing to boom box music, we sat down and really watched the dynamics. Hence I noticed the frail white-haired man in a wheelchair raptly enjoying the scene, the fortyish woman practicing her dance steps solo behind him, off by the poster-decked barrier wall, and one couple who were sashaying elegantly through the crowd. Better observation, better photos, and more just breathing and relaxing. 

Reason #4: You can get lost without panicking.

Maybe not in the Gobi Desert. But closer to home, why not?

My uncle is an avid hiker. When he’s at home up in the northern Wisconsin woods, he usually hoofs it a couple of hours a day. He’s hiked up hills and down dales in France, Wales, Scotland, to name only a few. And now he’s done that in Massachusetts too.

I think the trail goes that way...

I think the trail goes that way…

Sometimes he gets lost on his own; sometimes there is a misadventure, like the day he came back from his jaunt down a conservation trail with his shin still bloody from the plunge when his foot went through a rotten board on the marsh path. After that one, I insisted on going with him on his next hike. Which was our opportunity to get gloriously lost. We chose the Robert Frost Trail, but were perplexed by the infrequency of blazes on the trees, and the variety of colors when we did find them. 

The peace tepee in the woods

The peace tepee in the woods

Leaving a trace

Leaving a trace

At one juncture we went the wrong way (my bad; we took the road less traveled), but were rewarded by stumbling upon “Lucky’s Peace Spot” (named after somebody’s late lamented cat), with a tepee of poles housing a mailbox which housed a notebook in which you could lodge your reflections. 

Ninety-year-old lady on Shanghai side street demanded photo with my uncle

Ninety-year-old lady on Shanghai side street demanded photo with my uncle

Further afield and years before, we also got ourselves lost in Beijing’s old alleyways (hutong, for the initiated), Dunhuang back streets, and Shanghai side streets. That was always on purpose, and except for Dunhuang, we had maps so maybe it’s cheating to say we were lost. But we couldn’t always find ourselves on the map.

As for not panicking, the way I see it is that if after all these years he’s still not permanently lost, my uncle must be good at finding his way. And even if we didn’t find our destination immediately by following his nose, we always ended up somewhere interesting.

Reason #5: You travel back in time.

Traveling together shakes you out of routines enough to encourage talking about things you don’t ordinarily get into. One of those things, with an older relative, is delving into more of the family history.

Learning the family past...

Learning the family past…

My uncle has plenty to say on that topic, and it’s never boring. In past years he has occasionally written out some reminiscences about his (my father’s side) family’s history, and all of his nieces and nephews and the generation after us have loved reading these. We all wish he’d write more of them. But at least when we’re traveling together, it gives me a chance to pump him for details. That’s given me some of the juicier tidbits about family members in their youth (I doubt those will ever go into writing—and I hate to disappoint my readers, but there is no Aunt Augusta type among the lot), or insights into my grandparents’ relationship, or a more nuanced view of the town where my father grew up.

Reason #6: You get a good role model for aging adventurously.

Maybe the rest of you can age adventurously without a role model. But I like having a preview of the things to come.

Can you bike with only one pedal?

Can you bike with only one pedal?

Aging adventurously is probably easier for somebody who’s been adventurous all along, and my uncle fits that description. He traded pastor positions with a Welsh colleague and went off to Wales for a summer; he was chaplain and academic counselor on a Navajo reservation; and he taught at a university in Tokyo. Those were all many years ago, but he continues to embrace new adventures. These days he’s scampering up steep hills in New Mexico with a hiking club. He can take the unexpected in stride (like the time we were biking on the ancient city wall in Xi’an, and halfway round the 13-kilometer circuit the pedal came off his bike) and in good humor. He’s game for just about anything, whether it’s semi-legally picking raspberries in Massachusetts hill country, or setting off to explore Buddhist cave paintings in the Gansu desert.

With a role model like that, how could I stop trying to emulate him? At least until I can worm the recipe for his famous peach pie out of him.

So, if you have an older relative you’re thinking of traveling with—or if this has made you think about doing so, see how s/he fits with the six reasons list, and if you find a match for at least three, I would say go for it! If you already have experiences in this arena, or you can come up with even more reasons, please share them using the Comment link below.

Book referred to in this post:
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt (Penguin Classics reprint edition, 2004), at: Your independent bookseller | Powell’s | Amazon
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Traveling alone: A reflection

Traveling alone can be a scary proposition for a gal. Maybe it is for some guys too, sometimes and in some places — say, walking solo through Afghanistan in 2002 – but I think it is more routinely scary for girls and women. During my late teens and early 20s, I traveled a few places on my own, but usually there was either somebody I knew or a school I attended waiting at the other end of the journey. So I could handle it all with equanimity save the white-knuckle plane flight. But traveling all by my lonesome to a really different place, and knowing absolutely nobody at the other end? A different matter entirely.

Which reminds me of a conversation many years ago with my dear friend C. Recalling my first lone-adventure travel experience, I told her about arriving in Taipei in the late 1970s after about 20 hours’ travel from San Francisco (we stopped in Guam for refueling, for heaven’s sake; that’s how long ago this was!), stumbling my way to a seedy hotel (met my first rat) near the central train station. My first time in Asia, knowing absolutely nobody, having no guidebook that I can recall, and of course we are talking a generation+ before Lonely Planet online. Everything was strange: the motorcycles parked all over downtown sidewalks, the traffic so intense I froze in panic every time I had to cross the street, my shyness so agonized I often went hungry because I dreaded walking into restaurants solo and besides, even when you read Chinese you can’t be sure what the menu items really are (“Ants Climbing A Tree”??? Come on, people!).

C nodded vigorously through my story and then chimed in: “I know exactly what you mean! It’s like when I went to the Royal Wedding in Nepal in 1970, and I was so terrified. I didn’t know anybody in the country except the king!”

Well, each of us has her own unique definition of Alone.

Which is my departure point for this reflection. How alone are we, really, even when we travel “alone”? Granted, there are some travelers who truly do go it alone, and who prefer it that way: Rory Stewart, for example, who no doubt rated walking alone through Afghanistan higher than having the friendly local Taliban guys tag along. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished the book yet. Maybe they did. Don’t spoil it for me, please.) Even such solo trekkers have a tendency to pick up companions — human, canine, or other – even if they didn’t actually start out with them, or know they’re coming. But sometimes “solo” gets stretched. I remember my disillusionment when I read Tracks after its earlier publication. Subtitle: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback. Now, I will grant Robyn Davidson the camels and the dog. But a National Geographic photographer who keeps checking in on her? Seriously?

Solo or not, though, unless they’re bumbling lost in Antarctica, lone travelers so often benefit from the kindness of strangers along the route, as did Stewart, and Cheryl Strayed, and any number of other solitary travelers. Including me. People give up their seats, offer you sweets, guide you through unfamiliar streets. Spontaneously, cheerfully, warmly, even insistently.

What, then, is so scary about being alone on a journey, especially for those of us passing as female? Is it that we don’t know whether we will encounter kindness or threat from others? I suspect that we do walk around with a heightened sense of vulnerability, partly because we know that violence against women is still endemic in nearly all societies; and partly because we aren’t confident in our own physical capacities for fight or flight. We are so accustomed to reading subliminal cultural codes in our own environment to distinguish friendlies from hostiles; are we gals more nonplussed when we can’t easily decipher the codes of a different culture?

But I also wonder, and possibly some psychologist somewhere has already explored this question: do we feel more insecure as solo travelers because we feel more acutely the lack of social connection in a strange environment? Do men tend more to scope out the lay of the land, while women look for someone to know? (That behavior would correspond to the female tend-and-befriend responses to stress that some researchers have contrasted with male fight-or-flight responses.)

I’d concede that some of the differences in patterns could be more cultural than gender-specific. Social connections are more important for both genders in many cultures than in our Marlboro Man American setting. If you fail to offer a pleasant hello when you enter that fromagerie in Paris, woe betide you when you need just the right cheese. If you just go straight to business in a meeting in Japan or China or many other cultures, without first participating in sometimes protracted chitchat about the weather or personal matters or your opposite number’s health, you are insufferably rude and if there is a way to keep you from getting the best deal or to make you sweat for it, you may be in for it.

That said, any traveler for whom making social connections is the greatest joy in traveling will get more opportunities when solo. People don’t hesitate so much to approach you, and you aren’t so distracted by or engrossed in a traveling companion, and can pay more attention to your human surroundings. You can hear more about people’s sometimes astounding histories, learn better to look at a situation or yourself from a novel perspective, start caring more readily about a place or people or problems you didn’t even know about before, and recognize more quickly that it is you and not They who are the Other. Would that shopkeeper in Siena have offered me, almost as a come-on, a sensual, full-face whiff of that enormous fresh truffle had I not been alone? Traveling alone is an often magical … trip.

So, gals out there: take precautions, if you’re nervous; get an introduction to the king. But don’t miss the trip.

Do you have any good stories about benefiting from kindnesses while traveling solo? Experiences you encountered that might not have happened if you’d traveled with company? Please share them in a reply to this post.

Books mentioned in this post (Amazon and Powell’s links are provided, but please try to support your local independent bookstore, if you are lucky enough still to have one):
Rory Stewart, The Places In Between (Mariner Books, 2006; other publishers and editions too). Powell’sAmazon Books | Amazon Kindle
Robyn Davidson, Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback (Vintage, 1995; first out in 1980, other publishers and editions since then).  Powell’sAmazon Books | Amazon Kindle
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