It’s no secret that I have a (not-so-secret) long-distance crush on the city of Istanbul. Recently, I ran across the passenger list for my grandmother’s passage to the US on the SS Themistokles on 27 Jan 1915.
My World History is splotchy at best, so my best assumption is that they fled the wrong part of the world at the right time… Gallipoli was mere months away, WWI was still raging in Europe. The US was opening its arms to immigrants who brought innovators and craftsmen and laborers to its shores. They travelled from Jaffa, through Piraeus (and through Cleveland apparently), to eventually settle in Brooklyn. Country of origin at the time (though technically Palestine): Turkey.
So maybe it’s in my blood.
Fast-forward 100+ years and I’m making a hodge-podge breakfast sandwich with what I’ve found in my fridge and pantry shelves: Persian cucumbers, pita bread, some red pepper spread from a jar I picked up in a market somewhere, avocado, smoked herring… I have a momentary and wistful flashback to a fish sandwich under a pop-up tent by the banks of the Golden Horn, in the Eminönü neighbourhood, across from the spice market, this side of the Galata Bridge.
More than New York City, more than Boston, this place calls me.
Balık Ekmek is common street food here, it’s fresh grilled fish served on a hunk of fresh bread with lettuce and onions and lemon juice if you want it as a sauce. It’s not fancy, but it is a simple kind of wonderful. The vendors walk around touting cups of pickles with fermented cabbage and pickle juice that’s meant for drinking. Even for one who likes pickles, it’s an acquired taste.
As much as the taste and freshness of the mackerel is the destination, what completes the experience and makes one’s senses come alive are the contrasts and interminglings here: the sounds and the bustle of the waterfront, the smells of the roasting corn and chestnuts mixed with the salty-ish city air, the colours and textures of the fabrics, the redness of the Turkish flag.
I’m daydreaming this morning: an ode to a mackerel sandwich, perhaps. The spring is trying to bust through here. And as a fairly dull and dreary winter comes to a close, I feel that familiar tug to the east, a restlessness in my legs to go adventuring, a void in my spirit where spice markets and lutes and zithers and magic carpets seep into my dreams.
Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).
Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.
Oh, the irony.
So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.
Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…
Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).
I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.
But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!
So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.
I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.
I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.
The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.
I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).
And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.
I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It goes like this…
I had just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
Truth be told, I didn’t fall in love with Bangkok the first time I was there — the congestion and the crowds and the plastic-wrapped everything turned me off. But my uncle is amazing and I wanted to see him and his partner in their 2nd home, knowing that locals always have better insight of a place than tourists with a map. I’m happy to report that my subsequent experience in that wild and weird city gave me a newfound appreciation for the neighbourhoods, the markets, the food, and of course the home-away-from-home-hospitality, all in a few short days.
From Bangkok, I took off to do and see things that have been on a list of sorts for ages… I dove in the Myeik Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, went on a hot air balloon flight over the ancient ruins at Bagan, and took a (really) long boat ride up the Irrawaddy River. Upon suggestion, I visited the floating villages and mind-boggling temples of Inle Lake, experienced sunrise at the Shwedagon Pagoda (where legend asserts that 8 hairs of the Buddha reside), and ate my way through an assortment of Asian cuisines in Yangon.
While I’ve travelled solo before, this was the longest and farthest I’ve gone without a co-conspirator to share at least part of the journey. In looking at what worked on this trip and others I’ve taken, I’ve come up with some rules (aside from the obvious ones around personal safety and general hygiene) for a successful adventure, more-so if you’re of an introverted constitution…
Start and end with a base.
If you’re flying in and out of the same airport, it’s nice to begin and end in the same place. An Airbnb, apartment or guest house is a cosier starting and ending point than a sterile hotel. I stayed in an apartment in their building in Bangkok, and it was nice having a place to myself in a place I sort-of knew (I stayed here last time as well), and a safe base with which to bookend the trip. I’ve stayed at the same B&B in Istanbul 3 times because it’s in a great location and a cosy place to call home for a few days. This gives a sense of clarity and belonging to the perhaps otherwise daunting trip.
Map an itinerary.
I’m not a fan of planning every minute of every day when I travel, but I usually create a map on Google Maps and dot it with places I want to see, places I’ve read about or that people have recommended, or with things to do or see that just look cool. That way, whether I want to relax for a day or go out and do it all, I’ve got a list of sites to see and things to do instead of just winging it and hoping for the best. These pinpoints can help fill in those lulls or can help you feel less stressed-out about what to see or do when you get there if you don’t have a tour or a guide lined up.
In Bagan, I knew I wanted to see the only Hindu temple there, so I made sure to plot it on my map. In Istanbul, I wanted to climb to the top of the Galata Tower. In Iceland, I wanted to see Kirkjufellsfoss… A little pre-planning also helps you be a bit more confident about the unfamiliar — you’ve done some research and mapped the basics. Even if you get lost (which I’m known to do pretty much everywhere new I go), exploring on your own is a little less scary if you’ve already seen it on a map.
Learn a few words and respect customs.
I’m not a fan of small talk, but a few words can go a long way. Even just hello (mingalaba in Burma, Sawasdee ka in Thailand) and thank you (khab-kun-ka in Thailand, jezu-beh in Burma) help immensely in eliciting massive smiles from complete strangers, even if you butcher it at first. At the markets in Burma, negotiating can be done with fingers (3 fingers, for example, for 3000 kyat). Take your shoes off when you enter a temple or someone’s home. Don’t point your feet at someone when you’re talking or touch someone’s head…(there are so many more, especially when monks are concerned). I tend to travel quietly and spend a lot of time observing and absorbing my surroundings, with the keen awareness that I’m the visitor in someone else’s homeland. You don’t have to have full conversations with everyone you meet or launch into a protracted apology for your country’s (erm) political situation, but a smile, a mingalaba and a small bow or head nod can certainly improve your day.
Make friends with the guest house staff.
Wherever possible, I stay at guest houses or B&B’s vs. hotels. I’ve found that the hosts are usually lovely humans who deal with solo travellers from all over the world all the time. These people can help point you in the direction of off-the-beaten-track things to do, they usually have great suggestions for where to eat, and can help make your stay feel a little less sterile. In Dubrovnik, I spent a night in a guest house near the port to avoid the hell-crowds of the Old City. The guest house owner not only took me to a food festival with him and his family (he even drove me there on his scooter and showed me around!), but held a suitcase until I returned, arranged my next guest house for me, and made sure I had everything squared away for a stress-free few days. When I arrived in Split, it was late and I had a brutal head cold. The host at the guest house (that he had arranged) made me tea and welcomed me with open arms even though it was 10pm and I could see she was tired. In Mandalay, I talked pollution and politics with the guest house owner, and only wished I had more time there to take one of her cooking classes.
Do the thing.
Climb the mountain. Seek out the ruin. Visit that hidden cave. Find the weirdest Atlas Obscura post and go find it: the Jumping Cat monastery (real…in Inle Lake), or that 1000-year-old ball of monkey dung (Not real. I hope.). If there’s a thing you have an inkling to do or see, Go. Do. It. When’s the next time you’ll be here? Will you regret not indulging your curiosity or seeing that thing you’ve read about? Solo travel is a perfect way for an introvert to practice the art of saying yes to things outside the norm (hint: nobody is watching, and if they are, you’ll probably never see them again!).
The bottom line is this: travelling solo does not in any way mean you must spend your entire holiday alone. In fact, it means that you can write your own itinerary, seek quiet open spaces or crowded markets where you can get lost amongst the masses. Or both. You can see that place that’s always been on your bucket list, or you can take 2 hours strolling down an interesting beach. You aren’t beholden to a tour group’s agenda, nor do you have to negotiate what to do or see with a co-traveller during a limited holiday. It’s harder, for sure, since you are 100% responsible for whether or not you actually see the place you’re visiting. But it’s liberating and empowering much more than it is scary or (yes, sometimes) lonely.
I’ve bonded instantly with other solo women travellers from all corners of the planet, and I’ve had fantastic conversations with strangers I’ll never see again on a plane, bus, park bench or restaurant. For the introvert in me, these types of small talk are somehow easier than the ones back home. Going out to dinner on my own when I’m home doesn’t happen, yet while I’m travelling it’s usually the only option… In Bagan, I watched a traditional puppet show whilst eating local curry. In Inle Lake, I broke my own rules about drinking alone and had a Myanmar beer while eating a bowl of Tom Yam soup at a table in my own gazebo. For lunch one day, I had the best Indian food I’ve had outside of Rajasthan because I asked the hostess for her mother’s specialty.
No trip is flawless, whether you’re on a National Geographic excursion or a shoestring budget backpacking trip. I know this going in, and I plan what I can, improvise what’s left, and take interesting paths in the process. Also, loads of photos!
Try it, I say:you’re bound to come home with a treasure trove of stories to tell…to those lucky enough to be invited in to listen!
I’ve posted this piece on my Medium page, as it crosses that fine line between travel writing and essay. But here’s a preview, linking some of the stuff that rambles through my brain on any given Wednesday morning to travel thoughts, life lessons and pre-liftoff considerations:
I’m drinking honey-sweetened green tea with mint, a taste for which I acquired in Morocco. The mint leaves, bought at a local farmstand and dried in my kitchen. The images of desert campfires and Sahara dunes come back when I drink this brew…
>>>>Adulting: I’m not sure when it happens; I mean, when it happens for real, that point at which you accept the Fates and appear for duty. Adulting, for sure, is a process… an incremental accretion of roles and responsibilities and experiences and been-there-done-thats, landing us at what…Our 15th anniversary of the 35th lap around the sun?
Truth be told, I don’t feel exponentially different than I did at 35. Sure, the joints are creakier and I’ve turned into quite the pumpkin by midnight on any given day. My tolerance for time-wasters has dwindled to next to nothing (tho maybe that’s not a new phenomena). And to those pesky little indications that biology is, in fact, in control: my inner idiot tells me you are immune to all of it, the graying, the wrinkling, the weakening, the widening (respectively: unkind, unprovoked, unimpressed, uninterested). Yet the calendar reminds us that it’s coming, and that we have accumulated these learnings and experiences; we’ve absorbed these bits of wisdom to carry with us to the next page on the calendar (or fling into the sea, if that better suits).
So, what of this year in review business? 2018 remained a continuation of 2017 and its inconceivable surreality. #MeToo left me battling some of my own demons, summoning parts of my past long-shovelled over; dragons I thought I’d long ago slain. I wrote this.<<<