Rain, rain, go away…

Overcast in the Sahara

Overcast in the Sahara.

When I was in my 20s I lived on tour with a traveling circus. For three years I moved with them from city to city, mostly in northern Europe, and no matter where we went it rained. A lot. Even the locals remarked on the unusual weather.

“It’s never usually like this at this time of year.” Continue reading

that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

Which destination would you revisit?

I stumbled across a list of travel-related questions on Nicolette Orlemans’ blog, and I think I’m going to play with some of them here for a while.

I tried to answer the first one – what and where was your most memorable travel experience – and realized I don’t have just one answer. And that the answers I do have, I’m already writing about.

So, on to number two. Which destination would you revisit and why? At the moment, my answer is Cuba.

My sister ran a yoga retreat in Cuba in February, and begged my mother and I to join her. And, given how brutally cold this past February was, she didn’t have to beg very hard. My sister has been to Cuba many times, but I hadn’t ever been before. My decision to go was spur-of-the-moment, and I didn’t do any reading or research before I left. And, to be frank, I was really only in it for the sun.

My first impression of the country… was not great. The airport in Varadero was painfully disorganized – it took our small group of eight people three hours to get through customs and into the country. By the time we boarded the bus to drive to our resort, it was nearly midnight, so I couldn’t see any of the countryside out the window.

Really, though, the airport (both arriving and leaving) was the only sour spot of the trip. We stayed at a three star resort, which was just fine. All I wanted was the sun and the beach, so I was very easy to please. For the first couple of days the wind came in over the ocean, so jellyfish were a big problem. Halfway through the week, though, the wind shifted, the temperature went even further up (yay!) and the jellyfish were blown out to sea, which meant I got a chance to swim in the ocean.

The very best part of the trip, though, were the chances I got to leave the resort. We took a guided walk up into the hills to see some local plant life and get a lovely view back down over the resort and the beach. We also got a chance to meet some local farmers and sample their fruits. Guava, sugar cane, coconuts, all freshly cut. One man gave us a tour of his house, and another one showed off his beautiful vintage yellow jeep.

On our last full day in Cuba, my sister organized a trip to Havana. Five of us piled into two of Cuba’s beautiful vintage cars (I rode in a green 1952 Chevy with a maroon interior) to drive the hour along the coast. I loved everything about this day. Our guide, Leo, was a school teacher who gave tours in his spare time because it paid better. He was friendly and patient and knowledgeable. And I followed him through the city, just delighted by the chaos and the exuberance and the life of it all.

And I want to go back. I want to read about the history and the politics and Hemingway, do my research, and then go back and see more of the country. Meet more of the people. The people in Cuba were so wonderful, so friendly. Intrepid Travel – a tour company I’ve travelled with before – does a 15-day tour of Cuba that intrigues me. So that trip is on my list! Maybe even for this coming winter…

Zeus’ Fallen Temple

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The ruins of Zeus’ temple at Olympia.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was once a colossus of stone. Immovable. For the ages. Built around 460 BC, it stood for eight and a half centuries and sheltered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world – a statue of Zeus thirteen metres tall made of ivory and gold.

Today the temple lies in ruins. My guide spoke of Continue reading

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.

changing gears

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning more about travel writing. I bought the “Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – because what better authority would there be, I suppose – as a happy-birthday-to-me present at the end of March. I’m still working my way through it.

I seem to swing back and forth on whether this is a kind of writing I want to delve into. I find the idea of writing endless click-bait pieces on the ‘5 Hottest Party Cities’, or the ’10 Most Undiscovered Gems’, or whatever, incredibly depressing. But I love to travel, and I love to write, and there is an area of longform travel writing that crosses over with creative non-fiction, so I’m nibbling around the edges of that.

Maybe all I really want to do is travel and blog. I loved writing those little posts while I was in Paris. I found it helped in contextualizing and remembering my experiences. I regret that I didn’t keep them up while I travelled around Greece, but I just ran out of hours in the day. And I was struggling with travel burn-out around the time I stayed overnight in Milan, so for a couple of days it all just kind of became about endurance.

I did continue to take photographs, though, so maybe before the memories grow too faint I’ll find some favourites and tell the stories behind them.

The Corner in Torrin

The Corner in Torrin

The road to Elgol, the small village where my family lived going as far back as there are records to show it, has only one lane, winding and twisting with lochs on one side and steep hills on the other. … Continue reading