Tag Archives: Travel

Learning to See

Whenever I travel, I bring a camera. Whenever I go out to do something potentially cool and photo-worthy (i.e. hiking or going for a stroll in a favorite neighborhood), I bring a camera. And whenever I bring a camera, I expect that I’ll be writing a blog post. This habit influences what I look for, which impacts what I see and subsequently write about.

And I know I’m not the only one. When I first moved to New York, I had coffee with a couple of bloggers (literally a blogging couple – what a dream!) that I met online and we talked about feeling pressure to document, write, and maintain readership. Crafting a good travel blog post, for example, involves some planning: What’s the story I want to tell? What themes do I want to capture? What feelings do I want readers to have? What do I want readers to see or experience or look forward to? As the post builds in my head, I document accordingly. At the same time, photographing and writing about my weekend wandering when I was living in New York gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t have one.

I’ve learned some really valuable lessons throughout, like what makes a compelling photo. Seeking out those photos has encouraged me to stray from the beaten path, talk to locals, and simply to wander. But I’ve also learned that the minutiae of humanity are important to me. I spent a week in Europe in April and photographed every interesting doorframe I saw and then turned it into a framed poster when I got home. I have pictures of people’s laundry hanging up to dry from everywhere I’ve been.

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Akko, Israel – July 2013

Some of my favorite photos are looking over the rooftops from a few storeys above the ground. But when I take photos like these, I catch myself wondering whether they fit into the story I’m trying to tell.

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Nice, France – July 2008

As I look around, I’ve seen beauty everywhere – in the sky, in the water, in urban and rural settings. Sometimes, it’s enough to be overwhelmed by what is everywhere while other times, it’s the focus on one element that quickens the heart. I take photos of sweeping landscapes and historic village centers but sometimes the ones that I like best are close-up shots of individual flowers, rocks, or flagstones.

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Batemans Bay, Australia – October 2017

Visiting family in Toronto this summer, which I’ve done dozens and dozens of times, I did not bring a camera. I knew that we’d spend time walking around downtown, which I’ve rarely done because my time in Toronto is always spent hanging out with family. But honestly, I didn’t expect to see anything worth photographing. To me, Toronto mostly means the suburbs where my grandparents and some cousins live and the downtown residential neighborhood where the rest of my cousins live. I didn’t really think there was much to see. If there were, I figured I would have seen it by now.

Turns out I was wrong.

After brunch with our relatives, my dad and I wandered through downtown. We followed a guide my sister had written specifically for this occasion; she went to university in Toronto and has recently moved back there. She sent us on a walking tour of her favorite downtown spots, landmarking what we’d see with restaurants, little shops, and parks. She included anecdotes about some of her favorite experiences and suggested places to stop for food and drinks.

Turns out, I wished I had a camera. If I’d had a camera, I told my dad, I could have documented the day and written a blog post. He reminded me that I had a phone and that my phone has a camera. Oh. Right.

But then I realized something important. I realized that, in my irritation at not having my camera, I was forgetting to look around and actually see. And in that, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t experiencing what was right in front of me. My favorite experiences of all time are seared into my memory because I was present throughout; I don’t have any hard evidence to document them, but even writing this sentence has brought a smile to my face.

Had I become so focused on looking that I’d forgotten to see?

That thought disturbed me and I made a conscious effort to shift my perspective as we continued our stroll. Instead of documenting for my blog, I walked around downtown Toronto with my dad, pointing out what I thought was cool, stopping here and there to visit a shop or taker a closer look at a mural, a poster, a unique building. It was interesting to hear what he noticed and how it differed from what I noticed and it was relaxing to just take a walk without feeling like I had to tell anyone about it.

Over the course of that afternoon, I learned something valuable. I learned that while I enjoy taking photos and writing about my experiences, I don’t have to do that all the time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be present wherever I happen to be, with whoever I’m with. And I learned that I need to balance documenting a place for others and being present for myself.

When I recall my favorite travel experiences, there are no cameras. The travel moments that I  treasure the most – telling stories during long road trips after dark; utter chaos at dinner in the middle of a city; stopping at a farmer’s market to buy food for a picnic that we prepared in the trunk of the car; drinking jugs of sangria outside in the winter; tasting spicy cocktails in a restaurant that looked like a forest – are documented through my memory of smells, sounds, mental images, and feelings of warmth. There’s likely something scribbled in a journal, too, and I expect that my memory and the moments themselves differ.

So while I love taking photos, telling stories, and sharing them, I’ll be doing that with a different mindset. I’ll be looking, yes, but the goal will be to see.

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Cordoba, Spain – December 2014

Travel Guide: Leiden and The Hague

For spring break this year, I exchanged the heat and humidity of Singapore for the drizzle and early spring chill of the Netherlands and Belgium. The reason for the trip was ostensibly to meet my brother studying in London, but the first four days were solo travel days that took me to a new town (or two) every day. I haven’t traveled alone in a while and was struck, as every time, by how peaceful it is to be anonymous in a new place. A much-needed calm settled over me when I arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport and I held onto it.

The twelve-hour flight from Singapore to Amsterdam was a red-eye, which meant I arrived bright and early the same morning I had left. Though exhausting, time traveling can be quite useful! I immediately boarded a train for quaint, beautiful Leiden, about 35 minutes southwest of Amsterdam.

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After asking directions in Leiden (I’m one of those rare people who doesn’t travel with cellular data, which likely contributes to the calm I experienced) I took a bus to my Airbnb. My host had agreed to let me store my backpack for the day and I forced in my contact lenses only because it was drizzling outside, as it would off and on for the next five days.

My plan for the day was to take the train about 20 minutes south to The Hague because I’d read that many attractions in The Hague are closed Mondays, the next day. (It didn’t occur to me that said attractions would also be closed Easter Sunday, but that’s because I didn’t realize it was Easter Sunday.) This time, I walked through Leiden to get my bearings on the way back to the train station. I loved everything I saw and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the town for the two days I was based there.

It was raining when I arrived in The Hague, the world’s center for peace and justice. For that reason alone, I was glad to be there. I found a cool little market and bought a new thumb ring (I’m always on a hunt for rings) . . .

. . . before making my way to the Mauritshuis, an art museum of Dutch masters that houses Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Just like in Leiden, though, I was mostly content to wander the streets and see what there was to see. Many restaurants and shops were closed for Easter so the streets were quiet and fairly empty.

I was excited to visit The Hague because of my interest in peace. After having coffee in a restaurant that sources surplus food from distributors, I walked through streets lined with consulates from every country to the Peace Palace, open despite Easter.

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The free audioguide tour of the visitors’ center provided an excellent overview of the world’s history and interest in peace. It also mentioned recent concerns in international diplomacy (of which there are many) and specific cases that had gone to the International Criminal Court located down the road. I particularly loved the World Peace Flame in its little garden and the focus on global interdependence. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but these are things that make my heart happy.

Dutch food also made my heart happy. Coffee and cheese everywhere were delicious and, in the latter case, far less expensive than anything I can get in Singapore. I snacked on poffertjes while in The Hague before returning to Leiden for dinner. I ate at a pancake restaurant that had been around since 1907 and had my first of many local beers. Again, better and far cheaper than what we get in Singapore.

Before returning to my Airbnb for the evening, I let myself get a little lost as I wandered through Leiden. Without knowing it, Leiden was what I pictured when the words “quaint Dutch town” floated across my mind. Only a few outer streets were open to cars, giving the town the distinct feeling of being built for people rather than merely accommodating them. The alleys I walked through led me to a flight of stairs at the old fort . . .

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. . . which is now a park with beautiful views of the town. . . .

I managed to keep my jet lagged self awake until the very reasonable hour of just before 10pm. The next morning, my Italian host who had lived in Leiden for five years made a lovely breakfast and sat with me to have her coffee. Despite her two cats, our mornings chatting were a real highlight of my week and a prime example of why Airbnb is a cool thing to do. I spent that day in Leiden mostly taking pictures and stopping in cafés to get out of the rain, which, like the previous day, let up in the late afternoon.

I visited Leiden’s windmill . . .

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. . . accidentally found the church of the Puritans who fled England for the Netherlands before departing on the Mayflower to North America . . .

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. . . and visited Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the National Museum of Antiquities, to learn a bit about Dutch history under the Romans (hint: largely the same as everyone else’s history under the Romans).

I quite enjoyed photographing Leiden’s old signs and the poetry of many languages that had been painted on buildings all over the city. I could happily live in this town, was a thought on my mind every day in every place.

In what sounds like a joke but is completely true, I dropped the lens cap of my camera into a canal before taking yet another picture of boats and tall, skinny houses. There was nothing to do but shrug and walk a lap around town looking for a camera store. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find one and instead had a glass of wine in a basement wine and cheese shop just in front of where my lens cap had floated away.

Everyone I met throughout the Netherlands was extremely friendly and helpful, which is always good when one is new to a place. Drivers stopped at crosswalks and waved pedestrians on. Workers in shops and restaurants greeted customers with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to be of service. Each city I visited was also very well marked for tourists with signs and city maps pointing the way to various attractions. I loved the Dutch lifestyle of bicycling, recycling, and supporting fair trade products.

After breakfast with my host the next morning, I was back on the bus to the train station. It was quite an adventure getting to my next destination, Brussels, but a lovely, quiet couple days had me in a state of equanimity that made it impossible to feel upset. Leiden, you’re a good little place. Thanks for having me!

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Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!