no country for bare feet

Picture it: Sri Lanka, 1998. It was a time before Instagram. A time when only one of my sixteen cousins had a computer, and it did not connect to the Internet. It was a time when I didn’t know what the Internet was, and frankly, didn’t care. It was a wonderful and memorable time, even though there aren’t any Facebook posts to prove it.

hattonHere is a panorama shot of my mom’s hometown from a recent trip.

December 1998 was one of the first trips to Sri Lanka (my parents both grew up there, so we frequently visited) that I actually remember. I felt an instant connection to the country and the people. I was a kid, so experiences that now seem inconvenient or undesirable just seemed like an adventure then. I didn’t care that we bathed in water tanks in the backyard or that no one wore a seat belt (or that there weren’t seat belts even if you wanted to wear one). I enjoyed the cold water on my skin and jostling around the back of my uncle’s jeep. As far as I was concerned, Sri Lanka was a wilder and more picturesque version of America.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 2.05.31 PMMatara, Sri Lanka

I was too young to be self-conscious and I didn’t have a phone to hide behind, so I embraced every aspect of the culture. I spoke broken Sinhalese whenever I could. I ate all the exotic fruits I could get my hands on. I walked around the house and yard barefoot, like my cousins. Well, I did, until one day I felt something rubbery on the bottom of my foot…

I lifted my leg to find a gecko flailing around, still mostly attached to my foot. Though I’m sure I wanted to, I did not scream in horror. Before I could really react, the gecko fell to the floor and scurried away. As disgusted as I was by the gecko, it gets worse. The gecko left something for me to remember it by. It left its tail.

While I’ll never walk barefoot again in Sri Lanka (there are so many geckos…), that’s not really the point of this story. The point is that as travelers, we need to immerse ourselves in the cultures and religions of countries we visit. Traveling is about saying yes to every experience. It can be uncomfortable, and it might not work out the way you had planned, but what’s the point in traveling if you never try anything new?

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constant vigilance!

Last year I set out on an extended vacation. I’m talking about seven countries over five months. While I’m a fly by the seat of her pants kind of girl, this trip necessitated some planning. I had to get certain vaccines, find natural but effective bug spray, pack the right kind of clothes, etc. My mother also made sure I brought a veritable pharmacy along with me.

I’m sure many of you have over-bearing moms. I don’t. However, my mom still made sure I had it all: bandages, Neosporin, ibuprofen, Imodium, laxatives, and multivitamins, among other things. I’m surprised she didn’t ask me to take a medical course beforehand so I could diagnose myself in case I caught a rare jungle virus.

Joking aside, there are a lot of health hazards innate to traveling, so I am glad that my mom ensured my good health by (excessively) preparing me.

During my travels, I had the pleasure of visiting Cambodia. I found the country had a vibrant, though sometimes bleak, history that was downright fascinating. I equally enjoyed the people I met there — nearly ever Cambodian I interacted with was incredibly friendly and welcoming

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My first night there my friend Gerard and I had dinner at a famous Siem Reap restaurant. The concierge at our hotel gave it an A+ review and told us that David Beckham had dined there as well. Who would pass up a Beckham approved restaurant?

The next day we started with an early morning tour of the Angkor Wat temple complex (pictured above and below). Drenched in sweat, we toured one temple after the next. Beautiful as it was, we were about ready to pass out from the heat when Gerard and I agreed that it was time to head back to our hotel for a break.

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Barely a minute after getting to our hotel, Gerard told me that he didn’t feel well… I won’t give you all the gory details but it seems that Gerard’s beef from the night before was a little too rare. I distinctly remember telling him that I could still hear the cow moo-ing when he was digging into his meal.

Fear not readers, my personal pharmacy finally came to the rescue! I gladly handed over my Imodium capsules and told Gerard to take the night off site-seeing, while I promptly went to the nearest fruit stand and gorged myself on jackfruit.

What this post comes down to is that you need to be careful when traveling, especially when visiting third-world or developing countries with lower sanitation standards. Similar to Gerard (but worse), I got a stomach virus in the Galapagos two years ago and let’s just say it puts a damper on the vacation.

When it comes to tap water, ice cubes, and meat preparation, I must quote the infamous Mad Eye Moody: constant vigilance!

the time everything went wrong

“Pardonnez-moi mademoiselle.” [Excuse me Miss]

I groggily opened my eyes to find a woman hardcore staring me down. This must be the pardonnez-moi culprit.

“Vous ne pouvez pas dormir ici mademoiselle.” [You can’t sleep here, Miss.]

I stood up, not altogether sure where I was. Then I saw my friend, Mary Sue, flipping through a brochure about Toulouse. That’s right, we were on a weekend trip to Toulouse. I’m not usually this disoriented. Then again, I’m not usually asleep in public.

Mary Sue and I went to the same university but never crossed paths until we studied abroad in Paris. Funny how life works. This is us about a week after meeting — we were fast friends.

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Upon waking up, I rallied. Mary Sue and I toured museums, art exhibits, parks, and churches. The weekend was wonderful, except for all the stuff that went wrong.

We stayed in a hostel located outside of Toulouse proper. The place was clean and the staff was superb – the latter stood out because we had come from Paris where the service industry is as unfriendly as it is in New York City. We were very happy with our hostel choice, except that because of its location, we had to take the bus in and out of Toulouse. Our first day there, we were at a museum when Mary Sue noticed she didn’t have our hotel key. Which, it should be noted, was an actual key, not a keycard. Uh oh.

We made the collective decision to wait to obsess over the missing key until we were on the bus back to our hostel. Neither of us could really stick to that, so our day was filled with queries like:

“What if we have to pay for a replacement since it’s a real key, not a keycard?”

“What if the reception desk is closed because we get back too late?”

When we got back to our hostel, the reception was still open. We started to explain our predicament to the receptionist but she stopped us. Someone had found the key near a field and drove all the way to the hostel to drop it off. Mary Sue and I were shocked and grateful. If this had been another city, the person who’d found the key probably would have come to the hostel and ransacked our room.

The next day, after more site-seeing, we boarded a bus back to our hostel. At this point, I’m not 100% clear on what happened, but I think we took the wrong bus. Or we had been on the right bus but got off too early. Either way, we had gotten off the bus and started walking when Mary Sue said that she didn’t recognize anything. I took a good look around and didn’t recognize anything either… and we didn’t have a cell phone … and there wasn’t a person in sight.

I suggested that we knock on someone’s door, explain that we were lost, and ask for help. Mary Sue was not keen on that idea. Who knew what kind of pyscho we might run into that way, she said. So we made that plan b.

We found a map in one of the tourist center brochures and tried to locate ourselves without much luck. At this point, we were especially concerned because the buses were about to stop running. Luckily Mary Sue had her Kindle. Long story short, she was able to get us back to the hostel. Then there was the question of how to get to the airport next morning… but that’s a story for another time.

Though our trip was fraught with complications, who can complain after a weekend in a city like this?

toulouse

it’s all in the details

Whenever I read old travel journals or emails sent while abroad, I’m stunned by the details I’ve forgotten. And it’s the details that really count. They’re what make a story juicy. Details transform stories. They can turn a one liner that no one cares about (e.g., “I got home late last night”) into the tagline of a story you can’t wait to hear (e.g., “I got home late last night because I couldn’t stop watching a prostitute harassing the cashier at Dairy Queen” – yeah, that happens).

I bring this up because I recently reread a journal entry I wrote when I was in Greece with my friend Kendall. I remember the trip being super fun, but I don’t recall anything too out of the ordinary happening. That’s not quite the case. The trip was great, but because we waited until the absolute last moment possible to reserve a room, there weren’t any two-person rooms left at the hostel we wanted. Instead, we booked a six-person room and hoped we would be the only ones to show up. We weren’t.

We arrived at our hostel in Athens to find that we really would be sharing our room with four other people. As luck would have it, one of our new roommates recognized Kendall. It turns out that she was a fellow Cornell student studying abroad. This instantly made us feel at ease about sharing a room with strangers. The Cornellian, Hannah, was traveling with two girls (Michelle and Ruby) and a guy (Stefan) from her abroad program. Anyway, how can you worry about stranger danger when you’re staying about five minutes from some of the world’s most beautiful ruins?

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The group was quite friendly and on our last night in Athens, the six of us went out together. My memory of that night is pretty hazy. If you asked me about it before rereading my journal, I would have said we had a nice time. My answer would have actually been that trite. Fortunately, my journal entry speaks for itself, so here’s what really happened:

We went to a bar where I made out with a guy named Kostos, which I thought was really Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants of me (I still think that, actually). Then we got a cab to go to another bar. Michelle thought our driver was hitting on her (he wasn’t), so she stopped him halfway to our destination, told us all to get out, and found us a new cab. At the second bar, I distracted a guy while Kendall stole a cigarette from him (somehow that seemed easier than bumming a cigarette). Hannah broke down in tears on our ride home and broke the handle of the room above ours trying to get in (she may have had too much to drink). Then we all went to bed, although I did see Stefan get into Ruby’s twin bed with her.

For a typical night out, I’d say that a drunk and crying girl, a drunk hook-up, and a drunk make-out are pretty standard. What I did find strange was that when I woke up at 5 AM, Stefan was suddenly in Michelle’s bed and there were a lot of clothes on the floor. You don’t have to be regular on Criminal Minds to figure out what went down there. But we all know that what happens in Athens, stays in Athens.

Lesson learned: booking a hostel at the last minute meant that you’d probably have to share a room with strangers and those strangers might have sex while you sleep in the next bed.

We decided not to wait until the last minute for our next destination, Santorini. However, by the time we made that decision, it was already “the last minute.” So we arrived on the shores of Santorini on a 1 AM ferry with absolutely nowhere to go. Clearly we didn’t mind fornicating roommates.

In probably our second sketchiest travel decision of the week, Kendall and I approached a man holding a sign that read “Hotels.” What choice did we really have? It was between talking to the hotel sign guy and sleeping on a cold and windy beach with no blankets. You would think that two Cornell students would know better, but you would be wrong.

April must be the off-season in Santorini because we ended up paying hostel prices for an actual hotel. I guess we made the right decision by not booking early. Or we were lucky AF. Either way, the moral of the story is that everyone should travel. Even people with poor planning skills.

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