Sangria…a Taste of Spain

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Prompt #20: DRINK – my eighth post in bootsnall’s 30 Days of Indie Travel project.

Just as the cuisine of a place reveals clues about its culture and history, so does its signature local drink. What’s the best drink you had on the road, and did the drink have any connection to the place where you drank it or the people you drank with?

Sangria.  There really is no question about it.  Sangria is so tied into the culture of Spain, so representative of this country.  Sangria is delicious, refreshing, light and a mixture of complex flavors, just like Spain.

I found Spain to be a refreshing break from “Old Europe”.  Not as proper as the British, by the book like the Germans nor as traveller adverse as the French.  There was a sense of history, an understanding of those that had come before but at the same time a great enjoyment of life.  It just seemed like the Spanish people were fully aware that they had a great country and were happy to share it with the world.

Spain has long been a meeting place for different cultures.  The Arabian scholars helped preserve many ancient texts here, ensuring that we would have these records of history at a time when many in the Christian church were trying to destroy them.  Over time this past has been combined with the strong Catholic influence, combining to make Spain.  That said, even when traveling to different parts of the country there is a clear differentiation between the regions.  Madrid is different from Basque country which is different from Catalonia.  While there are certainly tensions, they all come together to form Spain.  Sangria has this mix of flavors with sugar and fruit balancing the wine.  It just works.

While traveling through Spain, from Bilbao to Rioja to Madrid and finally to Barcelona, most afternoons were spent having a glass (or pitcher) of Sangria.  Sometimes hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, just to sample the variations on this delicious drink as we were sampling the various experiences of this great country.

Spiritual Connection

November 20, 2011 1 comment

Prompt #19: SPIRIT – my seventh post in the 30 Days of Indie Travel series.

Some places have the power to make even the most die-hard agnostic reconsider their position. Have you ever been in a place where you felt more alive or more connected to nature, the universe, or a higher power than anywhere else?

Mecca Photo Courtesy of Flickr User AlJazeerahEnglish CC License

Travel allows us to get outside of our comfort zone, to experience and reflect on our place in the world.  There have been a few places that I have travelled through that seem especially spiritual.  Mountains tend to do it for me, making me appreciate the grandeur of nature and fresh air.  Man made structures such as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Notre Dame in Paris and even Stonehenge impress in a different way.  These religious structures make you appreciate what man can accomplish, especially when trying to honor their beliefs.  While I will probably never experience it, I am always awed by aerial photos of Mecca at the time of the Hajj.  The number of pilgrims that descend on Mecca at this time is a testament to their belief that this pilgrimage is a necessary part of their religion.  This sacrifice is impressive, regardless of your own beliefs.  Of the places I have traveled to, there is only one place where the natural environment, the man-made structures and examples of human devotion have come together to connect me with the spiritual world, Tibet.

Tibet is a place that you expect to be spiritual.  It holds such an aura of separateness, of intrigue that is tied into its history as a secluded Buddhist mountain kingdom where outsiders were prohibited.  Today, many Tibetans are clinging to this religious past, trying to keep a sense of their history and their religion as China is making a larger and larger push to assimilate Tibet into China.  China is winning the battle between history and progress and at least at some level, the people of Tibet appreciate this push to modernity.  That said, Tibet is still a place that holds a spiritual connection.  Whether or not you hold Buddhist beliefs, you cannot help but be impressed by the devotion that many Tibetan people have to their religion.

One of the single most impressive building I have ever been to is the Potala Palace in Lhasa.  Once the home of the Dali Lama, today it is open to the public as a museum.  The Potala Palace dominates Lhasa, sitting far above any other building in the city.  Going from room to room makes you consider the lives of the people that have spent their time here, their devotion over the centuries to their religion.  Outside the Palace, circling in a clockwise direction, Lhasa is filled with pilgrims that have often made their way on their hands and knees to the city.  Once they arrive in Lhasa, pilgrims can be seen circumabulating the Barkhor.

Whether struggling for breath in the high altitude climbing the steps to the Palace or wandering the city gazing out at the mountains, you are constantly reminded of where you are, high up in a remote corner of the world.  Somehow this realization make you feel closer to God. The fresh mountain air of Lhasa, combined with the temples and devotees make Tibet one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited.  The feeling of connection, of calm, permeated my time in Tibet, making it impossible not to consider my place in the world and my connection to God.

Budget

Prompt #18: BUDGET – My sixth entry for the 30 days of Indie Travel series.

Every traveler has a budget; for some it just might be higher or lower than for others What’s your style? What do you spend very little on and what are you always willing to pay more for?

I am in a very fortunate situation. As an ex-pat, my company helps out with my housing expenses. How they have it set up, however, is that they have a flex account that can be used for a variety of expenses, including travel. I have a much less expensive house than many of my co-workers and as a result have a very large portion of my leisure travel paid for by my school. This, combined with spending more and more time working on getting the most out of loyalty programs has allowed me over the last year to travel at a bit higher standard than I have previously done. I have been working on gaining top-tier status for United and as a result have paid for most of my flights this year. I am collecting my miles and points so that I can continue to travel when I change jobs to one that does not cover as much of this as my current employer.

This year I have stayed at some really nice hotels. Some of these were splurges (Mala Mala Safari Lodge, Correntoso Resort in Argentina) while others have been through the use of points and promotions (Marques de Riscal Winery in Spain, Cape Town Westin). When choosing a hotel I want someplace that is in a good location. Wireless internet and a comfortable bed are pluses as well. But at the end of the day a hotel is a place to spend the night. If the trip is going well, I do not actually spend all that much time at the hotel, though it is always nice to come back to a luxury hotel.

One thing I am usually hesitant to pay for is transportation. I will often walk “just a little bit further” rather than take public transportation or get a cab. I feel that walking through a city is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the culture and vibe of the city. That said, I know I have spent a lot of time and energy walking instead of paying for a 3 or 4 euro subway fare. At the end of the day I am not sure if this strategy is worth it, but I continue to do it, even when spending the night at a luxury hotel.

Food is something that I do not mind spending a lot on. I enjoy a nice meal, especially if it is the local cuisine. I have gone out of my way to visit places with a well known restaurant usually with a price tag to match. That said, many of my favorite meals are those that I have had on the street, snacking on local fare at very low prices. When it comes to food, a higher price does not necessarily mean higher quality.

I like to think of myself as a budget traveler, but this is really not the case. I like the nicer things in life and especially when traveling I am not going to give up an experience or enjoyment to save a little bit of money…except when it comes to transportation which is just weird. I need to work on changing that and maybe cutting back in some other areas of my travel budget.

Passion

Prompt #17: PASSION, my fifth entry in the 30 Days of Indie Travel

It’s easy to be passionate about travel, but does that passion permeate the rest of your life? Do you live and work with passion? Why or why not?

Many of the travel bloggers I read have left the “normal” life of work and gone on the road more or less full time. Supplementing their life on the road with earning from websites, design projects, writing or other “location independent” work, they are able to travel more or less full time. There are times when I feel jealous of this lifestyle, wishing I could spend more time on the road, more time in places I love and free to move when I want instead of just when I have time off of work. That said, I feel very fortunate that I have found a job that allows me to follow my passion of travel as much as I do, while at the same time being something I am passionate about. I LOVE my job. I get to work with some awesome kids, teaching them something that I really enjoy doing. Swimming has taken me all over the world. From a start in a summer league, I am now teaching and coaching swimming half way around the world. Before I came to China I was able to coach across the U.S., interact with some amazing people and really look forward to my jobs more days than I didn’t.

There are times when inevitably, life at home is boring. When we travel it is something different from our everyday life and thus easy to be passionate about. The fact that I am bored some of the time, that I would rather sit on the couch watching a movie rather than experience Beijing does not mean I am not passionate about my life here. I love my job, I am doing something I am passionate about and I get to travel. How much better can life be.

Baggage

Prompt #16 – Baggage, my fourth entry for the 30 days of Indie Travel.

I am horrible at packing, simply horrible.  On my recent trip back from South Africa, I lost a lot of good wine when three bottles broke in my checked baggage.  Fortunately it was white wine so outside of some soggy books, nothing else was ruined.  I thought I had done a good job padding all of the bottles, but on each layover I was greeted with the news that another bottle had broken.  In addition to needing more practice packing safely, I also tend to take WAY too much stuff when I travel.  I pack everything I might possibly need and every electronic device I have to enhance travel from an iPad, my laptop, my camera and of course noise canceling headphones.  I am working on taking less when I travel but still have a long way to go.  With Star Alliance Gold status, I no longer need to watch the weight of my checked bags as much as I used to, making it easier for me to take a ton of stuff with me.  In short, I take way too much baggage with me.  Fortunately, it is physical baggage instead of mental baggage.  Travel is a time for me to relax, even when on the move.  My time is almost always spent doing something I have chose to do, allowing me to really sit back and get as much out of a place as I can.  I will always prefer physical baggage to mental baggage, even when dragging my heavy, leaking suitcases through the airport.

Cities

November 16, 2011 6 comments

My third entry for 30 Days of Indie Travel

Prompt # 15 – Cities

When traveling, I tend to be attracted to big cities.  Given the option of a beach or a city, I will almost always choose the city.  Perhaps this is because cities are usually a bit easier to get to, but I think the bigger reason is that cities are exciting for me.  I love that there is always something to do, always something to see.  The best of a country tends to be drawn to the cities.  That is not to say that there is not good to be found outside of cities, but it is a bit harder to find.

Throughout my travels I have been to many cities that I have loved.  There are the few that I find awful, but this almost always has something to do with something out of the cities control, like weather or my mood at the time.  While each great city has something to offer, these ten rise above the others I have been to.  I am not sure that I can really choose a favorite hence the two number 1’s, so instead I will give a few reasons why each of these have provided some of the best experiences I have had while traveling.

  1. Cape Town, South Africa – Perhaps the most beautiful city I have been to.  Cape Town also features great weather, a great dining scene and so many options of things to do that it was impossible to be bored.                                                                                               
  1. Barcelona, Spain – I wrote about my visit to Barcelona here.  The food, culture and architecture set this apart from most others I have been to.  This is a quintessential city that is so easy to get lost in, enthralled in the sights, sounds and history of the place.
  2. Istanbul, Turkey – Sitting at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Istanbul has reminders of history around every corner.  Add in some fantastic food and good weather and you have a winning combination.
  3. Amsterdam, the Netherlands – I am not sure if I have ever visited a more comfortable city.  It’s charm is simply in being there, experiencing everything it has to offer.  It’s food does not stand out, the weather is chilly and rainy, it is expensive, but I am not sure if there is any other city in the world that I would like to spend an afternoon wandering around.                   
  4. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Great food, a very vibrant culture, good weather and a feel that you are in Europe instead of South America but still with South American passion make for a great place to travel to.
  5. Kyoto, Japan- Of my top 10, this is the one that caught me by surprise.  On my first trip to Japan I was looking forward to the food of Osaka, the modernity of Tokyo and the reminder of past mistakes in Hiroshima but Kyoto won my heart.  The culture and history, combined with good food and beautiful mountains make Kyoto my favorite city in Japan.
  6. Hong Kong, China – This city that feels simultaneously Asian and Western.  If visiting from China (as I have) the western aspects stand out.  If coming from the west, the combination of Asian cultures make for a fantastic Asian experience.  The pace of life, the busyness of a city are all on showcase here along with great food, good shopping and good transportation.                  
  7. Stockholm, Sweden – Set amidst the Stockholm Archipelago, Stockholm takes all of what Scandinavia is well known for and somehow improves on it.  The architecture, design, shopping, and wide range of activities make this a must visit in Summer.  Winter might be a bit cold.
  8. Chicago, U.S.A. – Close to one of my homes, Chicago is a great city with impressive and important architecture, fantastic food, great shopping, amazing museums and a cultural scene that rivals any other city on my list.
  9. Shanghai, China – A 21st century city with a long history.  This is one of the most modern cities on my top 10, but just around the corner from modern skyscrapers you are able to find older neighborhoods.  The food is great, the architecture impressive and the history fascinating.

Honorable Mention – London, Beijing, Moscow, Portland OR, Tokyo, Singapore, Frankfurt, Lhasa

Quotations about Travel

November 15, 2011 1 comment

My second day of the 30 days of Indie Travel writing.

Prompt #14 – Quote

Below are 6 of my favorite quotations about travel.

“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” – Paul Theroux

“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

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