September 20, 2014

Why Leap?

Why Leap?

Why Leap?

Male to Colombo to Dubai to Milan and finally landing in New York forty hours later was the route we took home from the Maldives last week. The jet lag has been palpable but we’d both say it has been worth it for the perfection we experienced in our beach bungalow island paradise for six magical days. But for most of the people we talked to, the look of disbelief in their eyes when we explained the journey home was enough to say-“no way, I’d never do that!” We’ve gotten the same response countless times with the question-‘how long is the flight from New York to Melbourne? What on earth do you do for that long?’ Travel may mean something different to everyone, but no matter the explanation, we all have our reasons for leaping.

For me, travel is a journey from start to finish. Be it a two-day jaunt or a leap of years-I find magic in every part. It’s hard to believe considering when I even mention a thought about a trip or a move; my mom get’s stressed not liking anything to do with the word travel. For me, it’s exhilarating. There’s the research, the decision, the planning, the packing and then the actual adventure. I enjoy it all, but I actually get excited when I get to the airport, hand off my bags, head through security and know that I’m on my way! Each time I wander around the airport shops like a kid in a candy store knowing something great is about to happen-the anticipation is only the start to the journey.

It’s been called a traveler’s curse, itchy feet, a vice, an escape, running away and a million other things, but for the travelers I know, it’s part of their make up. Check the genetic code and I think you’d find a travel gene as part of many of our DNA compositions. We’ll tell you that our lists continue to grow no matter how many lands our feet touch. Some count passport stamps while others regale you with tales of amazing people and incredible human-interest stories. We’ll save our pennies regularly for that unquenchable desire to spend them on an adventure. Some travel solo on a journey all their own while others go in groups and find they learn even more about themselves than they ever expected. Some seek the world’s wisdom while others have a passion for learning as much as possible through first-hand encounters different than those in which they themselves experienced in their youth.

Why do you travel? What for you is worth the leap or the risk? Does the age old adage, “if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine-it’s lethal” resonate with you? Is it to experience other cultures, food, beer and lifestyles? Do you feel a pull towards nature’s beauty or the UNESCO world heritage site list? Do you like to volunteer in other parts of the world? Is it to get outside your comfort zone or just to know that you’re one small part of a much greater world? For me, it’s a mixture of all of these things. The insatiable curiosity of learning by doing is a driving force but the act of travel encompasses so many others that it’s difficult to put into words. Like many fellow travelers, the rush of travel makes me feel alive and although it comes with risks-I believe they are far outweighed by the rewards. I breathe better when I travel. I feel better when I’m planning an adventure. I smile more when talking to others about their experiences and bantering about ideas for new exploits. I learn more about the world when I’m forced outside my comfort zone and I relish the relationships that have been fostered by these ventures. Even more so, through my travels I’ve learned more about myself and why I leap, and I’ve learned to trust that the net will, without a doubt, appear.

In the end, although I would never tell you that these past few days of waking up at 4am has been pleasant (when you’re not heading to the airport to catch another flight at least), the sunrises have been beautiful and the jet lag undoubtedly worthwhile.

Why do you leap?

To read more of Stacey’s writing check out her website.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

September 19, 2014

Vagabonding Case Study: Chris Backe

Chris Backe headshot

Chris Backe

 
oneweirdglobe.com
 
Age: 32
 
Hometown: eek… Let’s call it Chicago, Illinois.
 
Quote“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain 
 
(more…)

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Category: General, Vagabonding Case Studies

September 18, 2014

The top five gifts travel has given me

I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.

5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, getting pushed around on a NYC subway at rush hour, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.

 

4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.

When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can.  When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but travel has added a richness to our friendship that can’t be replicated. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.

555210_366962670097308_615540229_n

3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.

If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.

1011405_371339279659647_647328360_n 2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.

Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and define education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.

 

1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.

 

What have you gained from travel?

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Category: General, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

September 16, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: Escaping to the real Hawaii

Catnip to adventure travellers in search of an authentic Hawaiian escape, Molokai is often referred to as ‘The most Hawaiian island’. With little other than true Aloha on offer, those who board a tiny turboprop plane in Honolulu should expect to step back in time when they land in Ho’olehua.

Unlike its neighbours Molokai does not cater for the package holiday goer. There are no major chain hotels or supermarkets, no luxury resorts and very few tour operators. Without the usual selection of restaurants, activities and tours to occupy your time Molokai encourages you to connect with the heritage of the Hawaiian people, to drink in the lush landscape and immerse yourself in the tropical waters.

Cost/day

Hawaii is not a low cost destination however there are a number of ways you can keep your travel expenses to a minimum

Connections to Molokai – $98 – $140 return

With no major airlines flying into Molokai a connection is essential, this can be obtained via Mokulele Air on Oahu or Maui, or via the Hawaiian Ocean Project Ferry on Maui.

Accommodations on Molokai based on double occupancy – from $120/night

Despite the closure of the island’s only resort in 2008, there are plenty of places to lay your head. Self-catered options are by far the most popular, with limited dining options on the island kitchen facilities provide the flexibility to be budget and health conscious should you wish.

During my week on Molokai I rented a one bedroom Vacations-Abroad.com Wavecrest Condo which offers self-catered accommodation, a private lanai with views over the ocean to Maui, and use of a private pool. It was also equipped with snorkelling gear, beach towels, games and a small library of reference books detailing various aspects of the island and its heritage.

If you’re feeling adventurous check out Pu’u O Hoku Ranch. Offering a rather more rustic retreat this biodynamic and organic ranch and farm is set on 14,000 acres of protected land, immersed in the transcendent beauty of forest, sky and ocean.

Transport on Molokai – from $40/day

There is no public transport on the island so a rental car is a necessity if you are to avoid high taxi fares throughout your stay.

For international visitors Alamo offer standard car rental packages, I paid around $280 for one week rental of an economy class car however on arrival I received a free upgrade to a convertible sports car as the depot were sold out of economy options.

If you hold a valid US car insurance policy of your own, you can rent from local resident Pat who operates Mobettah Cars.

Describe a typical day

Although to some it may appear as though Moloaki has little in the way of entertainment there’s ample to keep you occupied during your stay.

After a breakfast of tropical fruits and pancakes it’s time to hit the beach, and at just 38 miles in length you can be at any beach on the island with ease.

I spent a number of afternoons exploring the island’s coastline, lazing on Papohaku Beach and diving on the fringing reef which runs like a marine highway between Molokai and neighbouring Maui.

Action & Adventure – from $100pp

If outdoor adventure is your cup of tea then head to Molokai Outdoors who will outfit you for guided sea kayaking, scuba diving and hiking excursions. I chose to dive the fringing reef and had a close encounter with some of Hawaii’s turtles!

History & Heritage – $199pp

Molokai is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and breathing in the island’s past is an integral itinerary addition.

Those keen to immerse themselves in Molokai’s darker side can take a guided mule ride or hike down through the Kalaupapa National Historical Park to a remote peninsula that was once home to those islanders afflicted with Hansen’s Disease. As I was on a restricted budget I opted to visit the spectacular Kalaupapa Lookout which offers a dramatic view of the peninsula and the island’s vast sea cliffs.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

There are no traffic lights on the island!

Molokai is home to just 8,000 people. There is one major road which links the east and west coast and another which links the north and south. In all honesty there’s just no need for traffic management.

For a brief snapshot of my week long stay on Molokai check out this video or refer to my handy Molokai travel guide for more information.

Have you explored the island of Molokai? Share your trip report with me below.

 

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Category: North America, Vagabonding Field Reports

September 15, 2014

When you travel more slowly, you make stronger connections

“Michael [Rockefeller] was working with a bottomless supply of money — the one thing that limits most people, that checks them, that forces them to use friendship and reciprocity and patience with others. And there is a profound difference between people who are friends and people who want your money. Had Michael had less money, he could have had to move more slowly, would have had to settle in villages for longer, to trade, to make connections, to become known. Instead, he averaged a day or two in every village; he arrived, bought, and moved on.”
–Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014)

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

September 14, 2014

Finding new perspectives on familiar places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Clichés are lame.

Clichés are lame.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

September 11, 2014

Does news media effect your wanderlusting spirit?

For every travel destination, there is always someone with an opinion about why you shouldn’t go there. One person will say “I would travel pretty much anywhere, but never India.” while another person says, “I could go pretty much anywhere but never Mexico.” For a long time Colombia was the place I figured I’d never go.

I’m writing this article from Cali, Colombia, feeling perfectly fine about being here, though practicing a bit more caution than I might normally.

The reason I never wanted to go to Colombia, and the reason many people have “no-go” countries on their list, is because dangerous things do happen and we read or hear about it on the news.

This brings up the issue I’d like to think about today. There seems to be a fine line between staying informed and getting intimidated. My trip to Thailand at the very start of the military coup this spring made me acutely aware of the power of news media. Many readers emailed to ask whether or not they should cancel trips they’d planned to Thailand, concerned that it wasn’t safe for tourism. I don’t watch news at all, but it made me wonder how the media was portraying the unrest. The feeling I got from readers was that the media painted a dangerous and frightening picture.

In an article I gave my account of traveling through Thailand during martial law, a fairly uneventful tale of streets quieting down earlier than usual. It did not feel dangerous or frightening. It’s not to say that Thailand was without issue during that time, but as a tourist I never once felt unsafe.

However, I know that my husband and I tend to err on the side of under-cautious, and occasionally that does get us in sticky situations. We’ve stumbled upon riots before, for instance. I often wonder how many bad situations we’ve narrowly missed. For this reason, I certainly don’t want to be the only voice weighing in on this question.

riot in sri lanka

So I asked a few other travel bloggers or frequent-travelers their thoughts. Are other travelers watching or reading news media, and if so, which news sources do they access regularly?

Various responses I got included BBC’s website, CNN Kids, NatGeo Traveler, The Atlantic, The Economist, and of course some replied that for the most part they don’t check news resources regularly. Other, less mainstream options included StuckinCustoms.com and BatteredLuggage.com. (I found it interesting and worth noting that no one news resource came out ahead as the most frequently accessed. Granted, I asked a small pool of travelers.)

 

As to whether or not these media resources effect each traveler’s approach to travel or not, LeAnna of EconomicalExcursionists.com had the following take:

“The truth is, I am not going to choose to go to a place that is in civil dis-rest. Not because the media tells me not to, but because I personally would like to live a few more years. However, there are several places that I have traveled to that some may consider “unsafe” (Russia, Czech Republic, Africa) but I feel that the people who consider them unsafe are uneducated about those areas.”

 

LeaAnna highlights the benefit in striving for an informed, realistic opinion of a place.

Where might that informed opinion come from? Many of the travelers I interviewed commented that regardless of what media resource they’re tapping into, they’re going look into the media’s claims further and do their own research too. In other words, even when news media is involved in their attempts to stay informed, it’s not the last stop before their opinions are made.

 

Why take these precautions to go beyond what the media is saying? Heather of jfdioverland.com offers this:

“I try not to let the media influence my travel plans; the media often over exaggerates the issue and most of the time issues are in small areas, rarely the whole country.”

 

Jason, another frequent-traveling friend said that rather than the news influencing his approach to travel, something quite the opposite is true. His travel influences his reaction to the news:

“I don’t think the news media influences how I travel or how I approach a new place. It’s actually more of the opposite- the more I travel and the more places I visit the more I am able to separate what’s happening in the news versus what’s happening on the ground. People generally just want the same things in life no matter where they live, a home to live in, security, food, education and a better life for their children. So the things that make them unique in the news are not really what make them unique at all. Generally the stuff that you read in the news is in the realm of government, and has very little to do with what the average person’s life is like…I’m no longer scared to go to places that everyone else is scared to go to because I know those places have human beings that are just trying to get by in life, just like we are in [the] United States.”

 

Over all, while not everyone is so extreme as to avoid the news entirely, there does seem to be a general skepticism of news media- that it is not, on its own, enough. Or even that it is not, on its own, helpful.

Now I’d like to know what you think.

Do you trust news media to inform you realistically about a place? Does it effect your worldview, your willingness to travel? If not, why not? How do you approach news media to keep this from happening?

 I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Category: Travel News, Travel Safety

September 10, 2014

Vagabonding Field Report: Having a Baby at Home in Costa Rica

Greg Rachel Pregnant Costa Rica

Cost/day: $1500

What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?

I’m finally having a baby!! (Our sixth.)

Describe a typical day:

We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, in anticipation of the birth of our sixth child. We’ve all been a little antsy just waiting around (which is why we took a trip to the chocolate farm, just an hour from our house, on my due date :)

But now the day has finally arrived. It’s beautiful, the sun is shining and my labor has started. Our new baby will be joining our family soon!

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

Like: The house where we are living has a beautiful ambience. From the balcony of the master bedroom I can see the Pacific Ocean off in the far distance, surrounded by deep, verdant hills that are often clothed with soft, white clouds. Toucans, green parrots and other exotic birds perch in the trees outside my windows.

I feel loved and supported by my husband and children, as well as my cousin, mother and step-dad and midwife who are all in attendance. Pura vida!

Dislike: The only thing I dislike today are my intensifying contractions… but they will result in a miraculous experience, so they are worth the discomfort.

Describe a challenge you faced:

Deciding to have this baby was a huge challenge for me. My fifth birth was extremely difficult, and although I felt that having another child was the right thing for our family, I was scared to death to give birth again!

Now the day is here, and I’m feeling peaceful, confident and surrounded by love and inner power and strength.

What new lesson did you learn?

I did it! She’s here!

She’s beautiful and perfect, and I was strong.

The birth was perfect, and I feel empowered.

Saige Journee Denning, 9lbs and 21 inches long.

Having a baby at home

Saige

Where next?

Staying put here and enjoying the ‘babymoon’.

You can read the full birth story here.

Check out The Mother’s Guide to Funding Family Travel or learn how to create a ‘Freedom Income’.

You can also connect with me on Facebook, or join our Fantastic Family Fridays.

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Category: General, Vagabonding Field Reports

September 8, 2014

You can “travel” anywhere you want before you actually go there

“There is very little mystery left in driving around America when you can search a million photos of the Grand Canyon online, or when you hew rigidly to the route laid out by the automated Google Maps voice as you roll through the desert. You can travel anywhere you want before you actually go there. Inevitably, this changes how it feels to arrive at a new place — leaving you with that nagging sense of having been there before, of having lived this moment before. Digital culture demystifies something that strains to remain legendary, demoting an enigmatic frontier to the banality of a default desktop photo. • The effect of digital culture isn’t just how it alters our old dreams, but also what it offers as an alternative. If physical space feels finite even when we couldn’t possibly see it all in person, the new worlds we create for ourselves feel truly limitless. The Internet, of course, is the main venue in question, with its countless portals to wherever we wish to go, with the way it fragments us from a single person into a Facebook self, a Twitter self, etc. What is perhaps less considered is how open-world video games have, for a not-inconsequential portion of a certain generation, supplanted that notion of discovering yourself somewhere in the American continent. • There’s still plenty to be said for the experience of driving across America, but increasingly, it’s the virtual worlds that trigger our imagination. We no longer have to be concerned about arriving at the opposite coast and realizing that we still have ourselves to deal with when we arrive. Now we can acutely craft how we present to others with our various profiles, or disappear entirely into characters in some sprawling digitized world. Mostly, these kinds of games still operate in a fantasy/sci-fi vein, offering the player a world entirely dissociated from our own. We require different things out of video games than other art — we seek an active performativity, and games like ‘Skyrim’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ deliver.”
–Ryan Leas, Move over, Kerouac! “Grand Theft Auto” is the American Dream narrative now, Salon, 1/5/14

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Category: Travel Quote of the Day

September 6, 2014

A New Yorker goes to the Minnesota State Fair

Butter heads at the fair

Butter heads at the fair

It was December of 2004 when I took my first Contiki trip for two weeks in Australia. On the first night I met two girls from Minnesota and that’s where the love affair with the State Fair began. For years Cara has been teaching this New Yorker about all things Minneapolis and although I’ve now been many times I was never able to hit it at the right time to take part in the festivities. It took just about a decade but I finally made it to the Minnesota State Fair.

I learned a lot from Cara. I learned about ‘Minnesota nice’, throwing my hat by the Mary Tyler Moore statue and the structural brilliance that is the Spoon and Cherry. I’ve spent time making s’mores on Lake Superior, walked across the border into Wisconsin and listened to loons at a few of the twelve thousand lakes. There has been fun at the mall, a visit to the Jolly Green Giant, photos at lock and dam number one which was a first for this ocean loving New Yorker and then a return visit for her wonderful wedding. And let’s just talk about the fabulousness that is an ice-house and an ice party-Oofdah! Minnesota is a wonderful place.

We were finally were able to schedule a trip at the end of August 2011. We were even able to catch up with another travel friend (who also lives in Minneapolis) we met two years prior in Europe. When Hurricane Irene hit our Long Beach shores and the ocean waves were quickly encroaching up the beach nearing our car park and sea wall, we were safely ensconced in the twin cities waiting for the day we would get to head to the fair and finally see the truth behind the heads carved out of butter. Ten years ago I heard of these butter heads and couldn’t come close to picturing what it would be like at all. Would I really get to meet a Dairy Princess?

Cara and Stacey at the fair

Cara and Stacey at the fair

We hopped a bus to the fair, got our tickets and smiled wide as we entered the gates of what could have been many, many football fields worth of fairgrounds. I guess had I been to the New York or any other state fair ever in my life, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as excited, but this was special. My Aussie husband had never been to anything like this either so it was a treat and a half for us both. For Cara, it has been a yearly event for as long as she can remember. When those ten days roll around at the end of August people from all walks of life flood into Minneapolis to take part in, work at, eat at or visit this fabulous spectacle. Concerts take place, competitions are won, farm animals are shown and dairy princesses take center stage in the dog days of summer at the fair. We went, we watched, we ate and we smiled.

First of all, this is one of the best people watching spots I’ve ever seen. Thousands of people wander the roadways and sections and the fashions of decades past forced some of us to raise a quizzical eyebrow-but it was all part of the fair. Our first stop was the Dairy pavilion. Not for my lactose intolerant friends, this is where you can get fresh ice cream & yoghurt, whole milk in abundance and here in all their glory are the butter heads. Children and adults press their faces as close to the panes of glass as possible as if New York City’s Macy’s Christmas windows had come alive. The incredible artist sculptor comes each year to create masterpieces at the fair. She’s an amazing artist and manages to take the exact likeness of these chosen Dairy Princesses and carve their features into blocks of butter. The artist and the princess she’s working on adorn puffy parkas to keep warm in the frozen tundra that encapsulates them so that the butter can stay at a temperature warm enough to carve and cold enough to keep its sculpted form. It’s a huge honour to be crowned a Dairy Princess and after the fair is over the family of the princess gets to keep the butter heads if they choose. We watched in awe of this artistry and marveled at this magical moment that could only happen here in the land of dairy.  And then Cara told me that I too could get my head carved out of butter! You should have seen the look on my face! With the help of the Internet, we went to the butter head station, uploaded my photo and within minutes my face appeared as a butter imprint on a pin that I could proudly wear. After years of wondering, I finally got to see a head carved out of butter-this was a huge check off my travel list!

A taste of Pronto Pups

A taste of Pronto Pups

As with any fair, food is a huge attraction. Mat was the first to get a lesson in all food Minnesota State Fair. Cara, being an expert in all things fair steered us to her favourite pronto pup vendor. You should have seen the look on my husband’s face when she said ‘you have to have one of these’! And just like that we learned the difference between a pronto pup and a corn dog and the magical taste sensation that happens when you put anything on a stick! Her reasoning for the pronto pup was that when dipped in pancake batter the hot dog takes on a whole new flair. I photographed, he ate and all was right with the world. Me, I went in the direction of salty and sweet. First there was an oozy and gooey s’more from the S’mores truck that melted in my mouth and fingers. Next, there was the pickle (on a stick of course) that was bigger than Mt. Rushmore. Then when we wanted some French fries we were steered past about fifteen different vendors to the only one Cara said was good enough to try-and again, of course, she was right. Who could say no to a jumbo sized red bucket filled with salty chips?

Fries at the fair

Fries at the fair

It’s no surprise that the fair lasts ten days since it would take us that long to be able to see every part. I sat on a tractor at the John Deere section and Mat happily adorned some paper animal hat on our way to the animal pavilion. Visions of Charlotte’s Web and the words to ‘Zuckerman’s Famous Pig’ danced through my head as we ventured into the barns to visit the pigs and goats and watched in amazement as we saw baby ducklings born right in front of us. So far, it has been even better than expected. Passing the prize winning vegetables, more rides and playing our own personal games of Frogger as we weaved in and out of crowds, we even got to have a look in the 4H pavilion taking me back to all of those special summers of my youth spent at 4H Camp in Riverhead, New York.

According to our host, no day at the fair is complete without a taste of her favourite squeaky cheese. What? She hasn’t steered us wrong yet, so with perplexed looks on both of our faces, we followed Cara and her then boyfriend (now husband), Wade, into the only food court that she liked for this mid-west delicacy. For us, this was a first. She ordered. We waited. Within minutes a small basket filled with oodles of fried goodness was upon us. Small dollops of fried cheese awaited and as Cara’s eyes lit up she watched as we took our first bite of these fried cheese curds and we all quietly listened for the squeak….and squeak it did!

There's something special about squeaky cheese!

There’s something special about squeaky cheese!

We could have stayed forever. There were endless rides, countless pavilions filled with amazing sights, vendor after vendor of fried deliciousness and people as far as the eye could see. Sadly, we only had one day to spend at the Minnesota State Fair, but in that one day it far surpassed all of my expectations that started when I first heard about it on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef all those years ago. For a girl who has smiled every time I’ve landed in the dairy land, the fair was a huge success. For me, the end of the official summer season is always showcased by days at the beach listening to the ocean and saying goodbye to our friendly lifeguards-but, I always look forward to hearing Cara’s stories and reliving those moments when I got to meet a real life Dairy Princess at the Minnesota State Fair.

Have you been to the Minnesota State Fair? What’s your favourite thing about state fairs?

For more of Stacey’s travels check out her website.

 

 

 

 

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