The Golden Coast

My week in California last fall was basically three things:

1. The weekend near Lake Tahoe.  

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Lake Tahoe at sunset.

I went to visit my friend Shannon so I don’t have any great ‘stay here’ tips.  But I can say, hike!  From what I can tell (which may be heavily influenced by Shannon and her hobbies) the mountains of California are for exploring!  So, the best way to experience the culture of the place is to dive into the woods and come out and talk about it.

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Lake Tahoe views from my first peak

Well, that’s what we did anyways, starting with a day trip up to Tahoe to bag my first peak (hiker slang for summiting a mountain) and take in views of Donner pass (which has its own interesting history of desperation and cannibalism that makes for interesting travel conversation).  We also hiked a little by the local Yuba River and took a stroll through her quintessential mountain town.  Northern California is nothing like the east coast, in geography, in climate, or in culture, which makes it exceptionally fun to explore.

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Downtown Nevada City, California

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The Yuba River is an exceptionally nice place to sunbathe on rocks.

 

2.  Midweek jaunt to Yosemite

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After bidding farewell to one friend I met up with the next and we headed to Yosemite.  As my first National Park Yosemite did not disappoint.  It’s ginormous, user-friendly, and just rugged enough that you don’t feel like you are totally trapped in a tourist trap.  Rida and I were only there for a night but we squeezed in a short hike for big views at Taft Point, saw the sunset shining back on Half Dome, and enjoyed the views from Tioga Pass.  I also stepped a foot onto the Pacific Crest Trail.  So that was cool.

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Taft Point Views

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Slackliner showing us how it’s done.

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I hiked Yosemite with a collared shirt, like a nerd.

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Sunset shining of Half Dome.

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Toulumne Meadows

 

3. San Francisco

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We ended our week with two short days in San Fran.  It was another one of those ‘squeeze it all in’ experiences but we had the added pleasure of happening to be there during Fleet Week.  This meant that there was an air show going on every afternoon over the bay.  On a whim we bought tickets to tour the bay by boat and then proceeded to disregard the audio tour and instead enjoy the skilled aerial maneuverings of the Blue Angels.  I love when vacation surprises me!  (Also, if you are going to watch an airshow, watch it with a plane nerd.  Their excitement is contagious!)

Don’t worry.  We also saw the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Lombard Street.

Oh, and then, the ever iconic Golden Gate Bridge from every angle.

Another spontaneous favorite of mine was a stop at Land’s End.  It’s just a park on the coast that feels a little out of the city and also offers the historical interest of public bath ruins.

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Sutro Baths near Land’s End, San Francisco

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Ruins are fun for climbing.

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Land’s End ocean views.

Tips for Travelers:

  1. In Yosemite we stayed in Half Dome Village in tents.  It was freezing and October, but we brought sleeping bags and loved it!  Mostly for the experience.  I’m not a ‘camping person,’ so that’s a lot for me to say.
  2. In San Fran we stayed in Oakland, which is just across the river.  This was a win for us because we had excellent airbnb hosts, saved a little money, and had free parking.  San Fran has sufficient public transportation to make this a valid option.
  3. One of my favorite things about cities are the food options.  If you ever happen to be in Sacramento, Bacon & Butter is worth a stop!

Why You Should Go To California:

Simply,

  1. The variety.  Mountains, cities, beaches, and forests are all day trips apart.  Beautiful, beautiful day trips apart.
  2. The variety.  Not just that what it offers is various, but also, it’s so different than many other places I’ve been.  The air is drier.  The trees are taller.  The drivers change 3 lanes at one time. And it’s three hours behind the east coast.  All of this makes it feel like you aren’t just vacationing at home.
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Where the land actually ends at Land’s End. 

 

The Girl With The Lists

Yeah, that’s me.  I’m a list maker. I haven’t gone so far as to buy one of those ‘list journals,’ but as you can probably tell by now, I’m a big fan of putting my thoughts in numerical order.  Today is no exception.

I was asked by a reader this week to give a summary of my travels thus far.  And everyone knows, of all the lists there are, summaries are the best.  So here are my travel summary lists, just for you Jenni!

Top Adventures (Things That Require Tickets):

  1. Stargazing in Chile, complete with tour guide and telescope views.
  2. Zip lining in Switzerland.
  3. Touring the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

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    The Hagia Sophia 

  4. Touring a tuna port in The Philippines.
  5. Cooking class in Thailand.

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    Cooking class in Chaing Mai, Thailand.

  6. Free walking tours.  You just pay a tip at the end.  I’ve done them in Chile, Quebec, and several countries in Europe and have enjoyed them every time.

Top Foods:

  1. Every meal in Quebec, including the pastries, eggs, poutine, chocolate dipped ice cream, and french onion soup.  Literally every meal was a win!

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    Maison Christian Faure in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

  2. New York City.  The variety is overwhelmingly delicious.  I wrote about it here. 
  3. Vietnamese egg sandwiches.  I don’t have a picture, but imagine soy sauce and carrots and something green with eggs on a french baguette.  Such an interesting mix!
  4. Fresh shrimp tapas in Spain.  Delicious, but also the first time I’ve met shrimp with so many eyes.  It was a food adventure!

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    Tapas in Seville, Spain.

Favorite Memories 

  1. Drinking tea in the Patagonias.

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    Tea as the sun sets in Coyhaique, Chile.

  2. Running to a sunset in Italy.
  3. Waking up to a full window sunrise in Santiago, Chile.

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    Santiago, Chile sunrise.

  4. Funny conversations with our waiter in Istanbul.
  5. Left side driving in Ireland.
  6. Hanging out in the park on Sunday afternoons in Guatemala and making friends with the little vendor girls.  They entertained us and we entertained them.  Plus, we all got to practice our Spanish!

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    Mayan girls selling scarves and hair ties in Antigua, Guatemala.

  7. Hiking.  I’m not a very outdoorsy person (aka, I have minimal survival skills and tolerance of bugs) and yet somehow I find myself hiking when I travel and loving it.  The Alps in Europe, the Patagonias in Chile, a volcano in Guatemala, the Sierra Nevadas in California, and paths between coastal villages in Italy each added variety to my travels, a sense of accomplishment for the day, and unanticipated beauty.

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    Hiking views in Yosemite, California.

Biggest Regrets

  1. Traveling Europe during peak tourist season.  Tourists are my least favorite kind of crowd.

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    Crowded Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy.

  2. Not zip-lining in Thailand.
  3. Not snorkeling in Honduras.
  4. Booking tickets too late in Europe and missing out on a few places.
  5. Wearing flip flops while hiking in Italy.

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    Dirty feet on steep steps in Cinque Terre, Italy. 

Countries I’ve Visited:

  1. Honduras
  2. Guatemala
  3. Thailand
  4. Vietnam
  5. The Philippines
  6. Cambodia
  7. Turkey
  8. Ireland
  9. Northern Ireland
  10. Canada
  11. Chile
  12. Czech Republic
  13. Austria
  14. Germany
  15. Switzerland
  16. Italy
  17. Spain

US Cities I’ve Visited:

  1. Chicago
  2. San Diego
  3. Phoenix
  4. New York City
  5. Philadelphia
  6. Boston
  7. Pittsburg
  8. Washington D.C.
  9. Miami
  10. San Francisco

Next Countries on My Wish List:

  1. Morocco- to experience the beauty and culture.
  2. Cuba- to experience the preserved culture while it lasts.
  3. Norway- because those fjords look beautiful!
  4. Singapore/Hong Kong or any ginormous city in Asia- just because I wonder if I’d ever feel like there is such a thing as a city that is too big.
  5. Namibia or somewhere in southern Africa- I had a classmate once from Namibia and it always sounded interesting to me.
  6. Peru- for Machu Picchu views and the potato variety, and because traveling in Spanish-speaking countries is extra fun for me because I speak Spanish.

Now it’s your turn!  Leave a comment and let me know:

  1. Your favorite adventure.
  2. Favorite food you can’t get at home.
  3. Favorite travel memory.
  4. A travel regret.
  5. How many countries and/or states you’ve visited.  You can list them if you want.
  6. Next place on your list.

Vietnam: A Travel Narrative

In the summer of 2014 I planned a 5 week trip to Southeast Asia with my roommate and her cousin.  At this point in my life I had been to a whopping 2 countries and was celebrating my biggest life accomplishment to date: completing grad school two months prior.  So, needless to say, Asia was good. It was a break from reality and a learning curve all mixed into one big adventure.

On this trip we traveled in five countries, largely hosted by friends or family or friends of family.  So, what I learned from this experience doesn’t compute into a lot of ‘how-tos’ or literal connections for you.  Instead, it was learning to travel more efficiently (we ‘backpacked’ part of the trip), flexibly (we booked hotels upon arrival), and fully (less with culture shock and more with interest).

Upon review of the trip we all agreed that Vietnam was our favorite country.  When I try to describe this to people I always start with the traffic.  Mostly because it was insane and entertaining all at once.  What makes traffic entertaining, you ask?  Well, motorbikes and vague driving laws are a start.  Imagine a four lane highway of cars between a four line highway of motorbikes.  And the motorbike lanes are 3 bikes deep.  Now imagine that there are families and furniture and luggage traveling on these motorbikes.  To add to this, the general rule for driving in Vietnam is to merge.  Merge on ramps, merge between lanes, or (my favorite) merge through intersections!  Have I painted an entertaining picture yet?  Needless to say, if our taxi got stuck in traffic, we didn’t even mind.  We just took more pictures.

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The motorbike lane, 5 bikes wide.

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Goldfish transported by motorbike.

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Fits a family of four: ✓ Check

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Can we carpool? ✓ Check!

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Yup.  One time, I got to be part of the craziness and catch a ride on the back of a bike.

This leads naturally to the Vietnamese fear of the sun.  Yes, that’s right: sunlight.  It is quite evident in the customized layering of socks and skirts and sleeves and masks and hats on hot summer days that Vietnamese people do not want to come in contact with these intense rays.

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In fact, we spent one day chaperoning a ‘pool day’ that included only two hours of pool time and about 4 hours of in the shade games.  Because of the sun.

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My ‘team’ at the pool day.

I also really enjoyed that Ho Chi Minh City (where we were for our week in country) was fairly easy to navigate.   Upon arrival we were given a map by our hosts and general directions to the bus station.  We took the bus ourselves on the first day there.  We also learned to keep the business card of our hotel handy to show taxi drivers our destination.  Those two things and learning to be brave when crossing the street gave us a taste of independence and normalcy.  You have to be brave when crossing the street because there are no cross walks and, well, I already told you about the traffic.

All that summarizes to the fact that we loved Vietnam because it’s its own place and it doesn’t need us Americans in order to maintain its own identity and culture, which is great because Vietnam is such an interesting melting pot of a place.  Colonized by the French, you may be called ‘mademoiselle’ by street vendors while buying your breakfast egg sandwich on french bread.  It’s writing system is also interesting as the words are written in “English” letters but sound Chinese when you read them aloud.  And then, many people learn English from Australians, so imagine that accent on some Vietnamese influenced English.  Just so interesting!

More things Vietnam just does its own way:

  1. Street food.  This is a pop up restaurant outside our hotel.  It popped up and stacked up every night.  I mean, where else do people eat on little chairs on the street?

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    Pop up restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

  2. Market bartering.  Yes, marketeers around the world barter.  But I think Vietnam was the only place we were pulled and persuaded in arm tugs and laughter.  Here we are enjoying a meal in the restaurant portion of the market.

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    I think we had rice twice a day.

  3. Currency.  The exchange rate is so extreme, it’s easy to be a millionaire in Vietnam.
  4. High culture. One night we went to a production of Broadway show hits at the Opera House.  The most memorable thing that happened: the chair I was sitting in broke and I dropped a good three inches.  Talk about startling!  Definitely the fanciest chair I’ve broken!  And I didn’t even know who to tell or how!
  5. Random French history.  I don’t know the context for these things.  This was before I knew about free walking tours.  But we did walk by the Notre Dame and a great big post office.
  6. Local history.   The last interesting thing we did was a tour of the Ho Chi Minh tunnels.  We had an excellent tour guide who was sensitive to the fact that we were Americans who lost this war and did a good job of explaining the events with sensitivity.  And we crawled through a few meters of pitch dark underground tunnel.  Pretty unique tour destination.
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A guide, modeling a typical tunnel entry.

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Erleen, modeling the tour tunnel entry.

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The three of us, in the jungles of Vietnam.

Why you should go to Vietnam:

  1. It’s nothing like America in a very refreshing way.
  2. It felt safe to travel, even as just 3 women.
  3. They have the best flan (according to my roommate).
  4. And, if you can’t tell, it’s my favorite.

New York City & Food

A few weeks ago I posted my New York City Local’s Guide here.  But what I didn’t have space to mention was the fooooood!  That’s because the food is so spectacular it merits it’s own post!

So, here we go!

Now, in my opinion, food is the most overwhelming part about New York.  Mostly because there are sooo many delicious options I’m afraid that I’ll somehow choose the one bad place in town.  It’s like I’m scared of eating regular food when I know there are so many delicious options out there.  (Essentially, food FOMO).  Add to that the the challenges of navigating to said food destinations.  Just because you find the BEST burger in Manhattan doesn’t mean you’ll always want to travel that far to that neighborhood to get it, unless you live there.  So, it’s helpful to have options in all the neighborhoods you’ll be going to.  Or else, plan out your day so you’re in the right neighborhood at the time you think you’ll be hungry.

Okay.  So, here’s a list of my favorites, grouped by location:

1. Times Square.  I know, everyone goes at least once.  But it’s the most overpriced neighborhood in town!  So, I stick to Shake Shack, which I’ll mention later, or Dallas BBQ.  I don’t have a picture, but you can trust me when I say that it’s the best bang for your buck in the area (we are talking a quarter chicken for under $10).

2. Little Italy.  Home to Italian food and NYC souvenirs.  Boarders Chinatown.  I have yet to have bad pasta there, so I can’t really say which place to go.  But if you are looking for a cannoli (which you should be) I always go to Cafe Palermo.  They are advertised as ‘the best’ and I don’t disagree.  Usually make all my friends try both the cannoli and the gelato, because you can’t go through life without having them each at least once!

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I remember this pasta.  It was Italian and al fresco dining for the win!

3.  DUMBO, Brooklyn.  I always advertise DUMBO for it’s view, but it is also home to some of my other favorite things, like pizza and ice cream.  Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s Pizza are next door to each other.  Both are super good, New York style pizzas.  Some of the bests I’d say.  Grimaldi’s does have other locations in the city if you can’t make it to Brooklyn though.

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Two thumbs up for Grimaldi’s Pizza after a toasty day at the beach!

There are also several good ice cream spots in the neighborhood as well but I always like Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.  Mostly because it’s homemade, in a lighthouse, right on the pier for great views!

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The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory can be found in this lighthouse.  Don’t miss it!

4. The Village.  “The Village” covers a pretty broad area and is the home to hundreds of restaurants.  Here are the ones I have pictures from:

Le Grainne Cafe: French cafe dining at prices I can afford.

Murray’s Bagels.  One of the many excellent bagel spots in the city.  The bagels come with plenty of cream cheese!

Pommes Frites.  I’ve only been here once because I’m not much of a salty muncher, but this is a french fry shop that only sells, you guessed it, french fries (with a variety of dipping options).  It is very good, so don’t let my lack of visiting stop you!

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The remnants of Pommes Frites.

Amorino.  Gelato near Washington Square Park with cone roses and gelato in macaroons!  Once a friend and I walked from Little Italy (where there already is gelato) to this location, because we remembered how good it is.  Also, I had some Amorino gelato in Italy, so it’s safe to say, it’s ‘authentic.’

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Amorino gelato cone, in the shape of a rose!  I’m impressed!

I would also add Saigon Shack (Vietnamese) and Favela Cubana (Cuban & Brazilian) if you are looking for good ‘ethnic’ food in the area.

5. Lower East Side Creperie.  This is a no-nonsense hole in the wall spot for excellent crepes, with limited seating.  I don’t know why you would ever be in this area unless you are going to the Tenement Museum, but I love this spot.  Mostly because it’s small and the food is good.  And, it was right off my train, the J.

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6. Upper East Side.  I haven’t eaten in this area much but I should mention that the popular Frozen Hot Chocolate from Serendipity 3 is excellent!  You’re going to want a reservation and it isn’t cheap.  But the restaurant has a rather ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel and the drink is delicious, as mentioned.

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6. City-Wide.  These restaurants have more than one location in the city (and some even across the boroughs), so you have no excuse not to try them if you are in town for any length of time.

Shake Shack.  It’s the east coast’s rival to the In-and-Out Burger of the West Coast.  Yes, it’s fast food.  But, the beef is real and it’s always good! Also, Shake Shack is part of New York.  So, just enjoy it. 🙂

The Meatball Shop.  Dim lighting and homemade everything (from meatballs to ice cream sandwiches).  This one is definitely a favorite standby.

Wafles and Dinges food truck.  Belgium waffles a la mode (if you want).  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Gyros or falafel or shawarma or whatever you want from food trucks.  It’s a good and cheap meal.  This seems like common sense, but I had to put it out there in case some of you are suspicious of food carts.  Don’t be!

Magnolia Cupcakes.  There are several great cupcakeries in New York but Magnolia’s is my favorite.  It’s my celebration cake of choice. 🙂 Vanilla with chocolate buttercream is my standby and I can tell you from experience, it’s still great a day old.

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Magnolia’s Cupcakes.  Heavy on the buttercream and a nice moist cake.  Perfect duo.

My parting words of wisdom:

  1. New Yorkers lunch late and brunch late, meaning lunch rushes might still be going on at 2:00 pm.  So, don’t bother being annoyed by that.
  2. Please don’t eat at a franchise.  If you can eat the exact same meal at home later, you aren’t doing it right.  New York has so many excellent restaurants that literally span the food palates of the world.  Try something new, different, or at least good!
  3. I’m not saying you have to eat at these places.  But I am saying, expect good things when eating in New York!

Bon Appetit! 

 

Managing FOMO

This past week I had two separate conversations about life, contentment, and travel.  And I was reminded of the internal struggle of enjoying where we are. So much of travel is about newness: about having new experiences, meeting new people, eating new foods.  And our lives need this.  Escaping our routines help us rest from the overwhelming that reality can be and helps us appreciate what we have on the regular. So we look for those surreal moments, when time stops and you think you might in fact still be an unemployed 15 year old, totally free to let time pass and seize the moments.  I call this ‘super vacation mode,’ that feeling when I forget what day it is, what time it is, and how far I am from reality.  I love this about vacation because that means I’m really there, experiencing the moments as they are, for what they are. 

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My sister and a ‘pinch me is this real’ sunset in Porto Venere, Italy last summer.

 

On the flip-side- when I’m not traveling (and sometimes even when I am) I often suffer from the millennial disease called FOMO (fear of missing out).  

It’s easy to feel the opportunities available as an independent, employed millennial.  It seems like the more I travel the more places I add to my list of places to go. The information age, a steady income, and the power to make my own choices in life can create a vacuum, pulling me in a million directions.  My friend last week went so far as to say that it’s impossible for us to be content because we travel and we know what we’re missing out on, so we’ll always have a new places to go and new adventures calling to us.

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Like the Colosseum.  I always knew I was missing this place, until I went.

 

But is that true?  How do we turn our fear of missing out, our desire to escape, and our longings for adventure into the sweet joy that is ‘super vacation mode?’

Gratefulness and perspective I think.

Now, I’ve heard about gratefulness in relation to regular life- like a home and food and everything we list on Thanksgiving.  But I think that sometimes we forget that in travel, things do not always go well. In fact, they can go very badly. Rain, lost luggage, and missed trains.  Vomiting out of bus windows. Collapsing into bed at night. Turning in early to avoid protests in town. Not everything about travel is glamour and excitement and what we imagined in our FOMO that we were in fact missing out on.  And what do we do then?

But that’s how travel and life overlap. Because, while we escape our routines when we travel, we can never escape ourselves. The humanity that we are, controlling or grouchy or weak, we take it with us.

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That moment after you’ve paid a fine for having the wrong train ticket, need a bathroom, and can’t find the rental car pick-up, but your sister tells you to pose.

 

For me, it always helps when I’m traveling to remember that the rest of the world is at work today.   Being grateful for the overarching gift of new experiences as well as the minutia that bring together a trip make my lamest travel days worth it.  And not just worth it in comparison. But actually worth the sacrifice of money and routine and regular human connection. For me I think it’s acknowledging the details that bring together a day – like taxis and airbnb hosts and bathrooms right when you need them.  Those things astound me.  Because my life is so full of routine. I know how to get where I’m going and what to do there and how to meet my basic needs. But for all that information to fall into place on the other side of the world. Amazing! Just incredible in fact.  

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Timely ice cream bars on a very sunny walk through Schonbrunn Palace make me smile.

 

Have you noticed? What makes the worst day of travel worth it for you? Have you ever struggled with the balance between FOMO and Super Vacation Mode?  How do you manage it?  Comment and let me know!