Cape Town, South Africa—I took one of those double decker tour buses to Signal Hill. It was the most efficient mode of transportation when trying to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Immediately after we arrived, I hurriedly exited the bus and walked around to find the perfect spot. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew it would be far away from the large group of people perched on the ground in front of the parking lot. The farther I walked, I discovered that I was in my element – trodding through rough terrain, almost barefoot…Totally free. It reminded me of when I was a kid, climbing trees and exploring the unknown.
I finally found a quiet spot, perfect for watching a sunset. And I waited. As I set up my camera to take photos, I turned around and there it was, a beautiful rainbow.
Bangkok, Thailand—’Tis the season for staying up late writing final papers. And that’s basically all I did in the 3 weeks I spent in Bangkok. This is a snapshot of every December and May: late nights reading, writing, snacking. Fortunately, the weather was great! It was around 85 degrees and consistently sunny (perfect conditions for studying).
In October, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died after 70 years as head of state and everywhere I went, I noticed memorials in his honor. I visited the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre where there was an exhibition in his honor, which consisted of thousands of Instagram photos posted by Thai citizens to commemorate their king. It was a heartfelt display of connectedness, rooted in artistic expression. Most of the photos were portraits of the King at different stages of life. At the end of the exhibition, I noticed a large mosaic-like structure of the King’s image, made up of individual Instagram images. It was a great example of art and technology being used to help people express themselves during the healing process.
Another memorial for King Bhumibol.
Bold colors everywhere.
A condiment at my local restaurant that I didn’t have the courage to try, but I thought it looked nice.
Seoul, South Korea—My entry into the country was seamless, which I always take as a good sign. Everything was going well. I had a good wi-fi connection in the airport so I was able to coordinate the directions to my hostel, I was well rested and my feet were comfortable (it’s little things that can be annoying on travel days so I try to mitigate those when possible). I was also able to buy a 5-day subway pass while at the airport, which is my preferred method of transportation (cheap, reliable and usually no surprise fees). I was so productive!
I found the train and I was on my way to the hostel. According to Google maps, it was a direct commute from the airport. When I reached my stop on the train, I kept thinking, ‘wow, that was easy!’ (That should always be my internal cue to brace myself). Nothing is ever easy. When I reached the top of the stairs of the subway, I immediately started walking while at the same time looking at my phone to check the blue dot on Google maps to make sure I was going in the right direction. The blue dot wasn’t responsive. So I would stop on the sidewalk and wait…I may have shaken my phone a bit. For some reason, the Google maps directions for Seoul are in beta. So, the directions were a bit off. I kept the app open, checking it frequently while I hauled my luggage around for about an hour.
Then my phone died.
I didn’t panic. I just shook my head, because, Murphy’s Law. I found a Starbucks and ordered coffee so I could charge my phone and also use their internet. Then I remembered that my outlet converter was buried in a bag within my suitcase. It’s one thing to walk into a coffee shop in a foreign city with luggage but it’s another thing altogether to start rummaging through said luggage. I had to draw the line somewhere. Then I thought, ‘Aha!’ My iPad is charged, I can use that for directions. Now, imagine walking down a city sidewalk with luggage while your eyes are glued to an iPad. That was not a solution. So, I decided that as much as I hate paying for cabs, in this instance it was justified.
I finally hailed a cab and once I got in, I realized that I didn’t have the actual address to the hostel written down, it was on my phone. I only had the cross streets and the website on my iPad. The cab driver said (well, I’m not exactly sure what he said because it was in Korean, but I got the gist) that he needed the exact address to take me anywhere. I got out of the cab and had to start over with the directions from Google maps.
Three hours after landing in Seoul, I finally made it to the hostel. Exhausted.
I was only in the city for a few days so my schedule didn’t allow me to see much of the city. For the most part, I stayed in my neighborhood. I observed the youth culture (by default, because my hostel was located near a university). I encountered music, fashion and graffiti clearly influenced by hip hop culture. I heard a lot of ’90s hip hop and R&B. Apparently, hip hop is a growing trend in the city. I’m always fascinated by the global reach of hip hop.
This color combination is close to something that I would normally wear.
Kyoto, Japan — Ah, Kyoto. It encompasses so much of what I love about Japan: Clean public restrooms, delicious food, escalators that work, reliable public transportation, chic fashion, art (I could go on). But one of my favorite things about Kyoto is how comfortable it feels. Even teeming with tourists like myself, it still seems ‘small-town’ in the best possible way.
One thing that I desperately wanted to do before leaving Japan is to learn about kimonos. Prior to visiting Kyoto, my knowledge of the kimono, was extremely limited. Okay, so everything I know about kimonos I learned from the film, Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden by the same title. The visuals in the film are breathtakingly beautiful. While I can’t speak on the historical accuracy of the film, it does give some insight into the artistry, skill and thought that is central to the profession.
“…the very word ‘geisha’ means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”1
So, there I was in a kimono rental shop on a Saturday morning. It was like being at Macy’s on Black Friday…a bit overwhelming. Many tourists who visit Kyoto rent kimonos to take photos at one of the shrines. I resolved to go back the next day with the hope of missing the crowd. Luckily, day two was a lot quieter.
Putting on a kimono is an arduous task. It’s not something that one can do comfortably on her own. First, there are several layers involved, with lots of binding and pulling, smoothing and folding. There were three ladies who helped me with my clothes and hair. I learned about the structure of dressing and how to coordinate colors, which was a lot of fun.
The result was a work of art.
Fisher, L. et al. (Producer), & Marshall, R. (Director). (2005). Memoirs of a Geisha [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the written word as art. The only good thing about not being able to read Japanese is that I can look at it from a purely aesthetic view, not assigning any meaning to words (a skill that is completely unhelpful when I need directions or have questions about what’s on a menu.) As frustrating as it is to not be able to communicate, I relish in the fact that I can appreciate the language in a way that a person who is literate in Japanese can’t.
This week I started learning Shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. I’ve noticed that it’s quite calming, even if you’re not very good at it (like me). I’m reminded of how I learned to write the English alphabet in kindergarten and first grade. We would practice writing each letter, one by one, over and over. You don’t realize all of the components that you had to master with your first language until you try learning another language.
Shodo requires patience and intention. Starting with making the ink, every action is purposeful. As I was practicing today, my teacher reminded me to breathe and be calm while creating the characters, which is funny because it’s the same advice that I give myself when I’m trying to speak Japanese.
The first day in a new place is always exciting and a bit anxiety inducing. I like to get familiar with a city by learning the public transportation, i.e. getting lost on the train. By that measure, my first day in Tokyo was a success! I managed to get lost but I also learned a couple of ways to get from my home base to points of interest.
The first day is also important for me to observe myself observing the culture…meta. Everything is new that first day and because I am usually pretty quick to adapt, I don’t get do-overs for experiencing things for the first time. For instance, I had an ‘aha’ moment when I noticed that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car in Tokyo. I started to think about the implications of this, like the proper side to walk on a sidewalk. I’m sure these things are connected. By the way, you’re supposed to walk on the left side of the sidewalk.
Transitioning into a new city also means seeing art. It’s my safe place. So I visited the National Museum of Modern Art, which was beautiful and they had lots of great works on display. There was a special exhibition by German artist, Thomas Ruff, on display but I opted not to see it because it cost ¥1,600 (which is about $15 USD).
After checking out the museum, I had lunch in the restaurant. I don’t typically have meals at museums because it tends to be expensive. This place was no different. What was different was the quality, flavor and presentation of the food. Absolutely impeccable. In my experience, you usually sacrifice one of those three things. It was a set menu and there were several courses, each more delicious than the last. My only complaint is that the portions were small.
I believe in the idea of art being in everything, especially in the mundane, and everyday things. I wonder what are the quality of life implications for creating artistic experiences in things like food presentation. This idea is not new, as evidenced by the number of fancy restaurants in the world. But I don’t think these experiences should be reserved for people who are able to spend a lot of money for them. Art is in everything and should be appreciated and enjoyed by all people.
Speaking of food and perfection, you should see the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You will have an appreciation for the idea of creating in an ‘everyday’ context.
Whew! These past 4 months have flown by. My time has been dedicated to wrapping up a project which had a mid-October deadline and because I’ve been moving around so quickly, I haven’t been posting as many blog updates as I’d like. Also, the lack of consistent internet prevented me from getting a lot of things done, which was a source of frustration. Well, I met my deadline and I am now in a place that has reliable internet so expect more frequent updates! Also, check out my Instagram (@myieshagordon) as I post there pretty frequently.
Here’s where I’ve been so far:
NYC > Dallas
Dallas, Texas > Detroit, Michigan
Detroit, Michigan > Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida > San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico > São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil > Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil > Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina > La Rioja, Argentina
La Rioja, Argentina > Uyuni, Bolivia
Uyuni, Bolivia > La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia > Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru > Lima, Peru
Lima, Peru > Santiago, Chile
Santiago, Chile > Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas, Chile > Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia, Costa Rica > Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama > Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico > San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California > Tokyo Japan
Which brings us up to date! Yesterday I arrived in Tokyo (one of my dream destinations). I’m looking forward to exploring the city and telling you about it.
One of the most difficult things about long term travel is trying to develop a daily routine. Having a routine is important to me. I have a propensity for going with the flow so I know how important it is (for my being productive) to create schedules, goals, lists, and order for my daily life. Travel interrupts my ‘normal’ daily life so there are a few things that I make sure I do to create some stability while I’m on the road.
No alarm clock. This is critical for me, and has been one of my life goals for as long as I can remember. It may seem counterintuitive to not have an alarm clock to wake you at the same time every morning but I have found that my body naturally wakes up around the same time everyday and I feel more refreshed when I get sleep that is not disrupted by an alarm.
Establish a work schedule. Each day I have things to do – reading, writing, planning, editing, designing, researching, creating and then there’s the coordination of travel, which is fun but also time consuming. I have a set schedule for what time I will work each day. I usually do more mundane tasks in the morning, take a lunch break, then do more fun work in the afternoon.
Make lists. Lists help keep me organized and just the act of making a list helps me to remember other things that I have to do.
Incorporate comforts of home. I can honestly say that I’m not home sick yet. I know it’s coming but until then, I try to cultivate my own ‘norm’ while on the road. I am still traveling frugal but I have splurged on basic things like lotion and good food. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting to be in foreign places for long periods of time, so it’s important to have a connection to home. I recently ate at an American fast food chain while in Peru that reminded me of home and it was a great experience.
Schedule meals. I try to have meals around the same time every morning. When I was in Argentina, my schedule was thrown off a bit because my host family ate dinner at 10:00pm every night, which I wasn’t accustomed to. The good thing about having a routine is that it gives you freedom to deviate from your normal schedule and come right back. Muscle memory, perhaps.
Besides my incessant ashiness and a couple of nosebleeds (because of the high altitude), I had a good time in Bolivia. Nevermind the fact that I was in the country illegally.
Let me explain.
One of my strategies for saving money while I travel is to use the cheapest form of transportation possible. In South America, that usually means taking a bus. Sure, it takes 3 times as long to get anywhere, but because I have more time than money, I don’t mind. Flashback to a couple of weeks ago when I arrived to the Argentina/Bolivia border by bus. It was a relatively simple process, albeit long. I stood on line for about 30 minutes to exit Argentina. I got my stamp and was ready…to stand on yet another line to enter Bolivia. Here’s where I messed up. While waiting on line with what appeared to be Bolivian citizens, the guard patrolling the line yelled at me to “pase!” At first I thought it was a little unusual but because that was my first time crossing the border into another country by land, I thought maybe that is what’s done. And so, I crossed…without getting an entry stamp.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago when I tried to exit Bolivia from Copacabana with a bus full of people headed to Peru…”Where is your immigration card?” The bus attendant asked. “My what?” All of a sudden, my stomach sank. This is going to be a problem, I thought. Now, you have to understand that I’m a rule follower. Not in a pretentious goody two-shoes kind of way. It’s just that I don’t like getting yelled at or reprimanded so I just choose to follow the rules the first time as not to get in trouble.
So when I realized that I have been in a foreign country without permission for a whole 2 weeks, my mind immediately goes to Brokedown Palace territory (if you haven’t seen that movie, I suggest that you do BEFORE traveling if possible. It’ll be more meaningful). My story is not as dramatic. The Bolivian officials were kind, professional and were all about that paper! They instructed me through the bus attendant what I had to do: pay for the Bolivian visa and an additional fine, which was about $30. I had to wait a day in Copacabana before crossing into Peru because I wasn’t carrying enough cash to pay for both the visa and the fine. So I got some rest and took care of everything the next day. It all worked out.
In the future I’d like to stick to learning lessons that are not so expensive and risky. At least you can learn from my mistakes.
Several weeks ago, I was in a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro buying coffee. The cashier, a friendly middle-aged Brazilian woman looked at me curiously. She knew that I was a foreigner but couldn’t pinpoint from where. “Boliviana?” she asked. I smiled and replied, “No, Americana.”
“Why would she think I was Bolivian?” I thought. I wasn’t offended but I was curious. I had actually never thought of visiting Bolivia before that encounter. That’s all it took. “I want to go to there.”
Fast forward to a few days ago. I took a bus from Argentina to the Argentina/Bolivia border and crossed with relative ease. Once I was in Bolivia, I rested at a cute, simple hostel not far from the border. I rested and watched TV (a Portlandia marathon in Bolivia, who knew?!?) and prepared for another bus ride to Uyuni.
The next day, I arrived to the bus station and it was just how you would imagine a bus station to be, no frills. Although, there was one difference. Upon entering the door of the station, travelers are surrounded by a group of vendors shouting and competing for you to purchase a ticket from their company. It’s only funny when you’re on the outside looking in. I had already purchased my ticket online so I was able to walk directly to the counter of my bus with confidence. After checking in, I waited a few hours for my bus, which I didn’t really mind because I have lots of things to keep me busy. I purchased some snacks and a quart of apple ‘drink’, the majority of which I consumed while I waited. The bus arrived and we piled in.
We weren’t 30 minutes into the 10-hour trip when we stopped for what I could only assume was customs. The customs officers climbed aboard the bus with flashlights in hand looking under seats, in overhead compartments, everywhere. They found several bags belonging to what appeared to be a family who had packed multiple cartons of white whine (I was nosey and peeked in the bags as the officers stored them next to my seat, which was near the door.) They confiscated several cartons of wine after much pleading and arguing. What I gathered from the whole ordeal was that the family had purchased the wine outside of Bolivia and was planning to sell it in Bolivia, which according to the customs officer was “prohibido.”
That took about 15 minutes to sort and we were back on the road. Now that I wasn’t distracted, I began to look toward the back of the bus where the bathroom is typically located. There wasn’t one. I assumed it was on the lower deck but I remembered that the luggage was stored there so it was logistically impossible. I didn’t have to use the bathroom at that moment but my brain was several hours ahead of me. Then panic set in: “THERE IS NO BATHROOM ON THIS BUS!” I tried to talk myself down. Surely, they will stop at a rest stop on the way, everyone will get off and grab peanut M&M’s and Cokes. My hopefulness had turned into delirium. I thought to myself, just try to sleep and maybe you’ll experience a miracle and not have to go (although you drank almost a quart of apple drink).
A few hours later, and like clockwork, I needed to go. Thankfully, only minutes after I had this realization, the bus stopped. The attendant walked up the steps and yelled “Bano!”
“YES! YES!” I thought. I breathed a sigh of relief as about a dozen people whizzed past me, down the stairs and out the door. I stood up preparing to follow them. It was dark but not too dark that I couldn’t see clearly. There was no building. The ‘bano’ was the side of the road. I saw men walking away from the bus 10-15 feet with their backs turned and women squatting behind dirt mounds.
“Oh, Lawd!” I haven’t reached a level of maturity that would allow me to use the bathroom, basically exposed in public! Nope. I sat in my seat completely uncomfortable but with my dignity intact.
The total trip to central Bolivia was approximately 24 hours between 2 buses. I’m looking forward to discovering Bolivia and I can’t tell you how thankful I am when I see the word “bano” somewhere.