Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits - Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]

Photo Of The Day: Cancun Landscape

photo of the day - Cancun landscape
There are certain images we see in our social network feeds over and over, especially at certain times of year: the Thanksgiving turkey, the decorated Christmas tree, and the vacation favorite: the bare feet on a beach chair (recently called “the loneliest pic in the world” on TV’s “Up All Night”), alcoholic beverage in hand. Today’s Photo of the Day is thankfully foot-free, though the image is still plenty jealousy-inducing. Flickr user Nan Palmero framed the shot beautifully under a thatched umbrella, giving the landscape sky an almost surreal quality, and the distance of the water and few people make Cancun seem practically serene. I’d definitely “like” this picture.

We’d love to see your travel images in the Gadling Flickr pool to choose for a future Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Nan Palmero]

Photo Of The Day: Thanks For Flying

photo of the day - air stairs
Happy Thanksgiving, and hola from the Dominican Republic, where I’m spending the holiday with family and friends. Rather than searching the Gadling Flickr pool for a turkey (or Turkey, where I spent the last two Thanksgiving holidays) photo this year, I wanted to see what came up for the term “thanks,” and found this pic from our own Kent Wien, boarding an American Airlines airplane in Antigua. You don’t see the first words “Thanks for…” in the shot, but if you’ve been on enough planes, you know how to complete the sentence that ends “… flying American Airlines.” Climbing air stairs from the runway always feels a bit retro, and seeing the old slogan brings back memories of some of my first flights. I’m thankful for my passport and the ability to share my wanderlust with my baby, in her thirteenth country today. Count your blessings and enjoy the day wherever you are.

What are you thankful for? Add your picture to the Gadling Flickr pool for another Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Fly For Fun]

The Trick To Surviving Thanksgiving On The Road


I woke up last Thanksgiving with plenty to be thankful for. The sun was shining. The air was fragrant. Outside my guesthouse window, rice paddies extended as far as the eye could see. I was in Bali, for Christ’s sake. There wasn’t much to complain about.

Yet, I felt empty. Thanksgiving is one of the toughest days to travel, especially when you’re alone. For a while, I puttered around my room, checking my email and looking at photos of friends and families on Facebook. It was the seventh Thanksgiving I had spent away from family, and it had yet to get easier.

I do, however, have a strategy for Thanksgivings abroad, and it’s pretty simple. I indulge. If I’ve been on a tight budget, I splurge on a nice guesthouse. If my neck is stiff from a 14-hour bus ride, I spring for a massage. I sleep in. I watch movies. I basically give myself permission to do whatever the heck I want, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed to do” while traveling.

And in the spirit of the holiday, I eat – well, and often.

In 2008, it was a midnight Egyptian feast on a rooftop in Luxor. My friend and I were dirty and dusty from a day spent exploring the temples. We scarfed down specialties like kofta and stuffed pigeon while our waiter played a special iTunes mix of Usher songs for his American guests.

The following year, it was a breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage in the beachside town of Anjuna in Goa. It was one of the few times I ate meat in my six weeks of backpacking through India. I spent the rest of the day in a food coma on the beach.

And last year in Bali, it was a lunch of crispy duck at Ubud‘s Bebek Bengil, which is famous for the dish. The duck is first steamed in Indonesian spices, then deep fried for a crispy finish and served with rice and Balinese vegetables. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. I savored it slowly and washed it down with a midday beer while reading a collection of short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri. By meal’s end, my self-pity had all but vanished.

It’s not easy being away from home on Thanksgiving. But indulging in the world’s pleasures – particularly its culinary ones – can certainly help.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Don’t Take Your Thanksgiving Turkey For Granted

us army soldier eating with thanksgiving mealFor some Americans living overseas, finding a Thanksgiving turkey can be an ordeal. Not every American eats turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but when you live outside the country, these kinds of cherished American traditions can take on a sense of heightened importance to the point where re-creating an American style Thanksgiving dinner, even if you’re in Dushanbe or Khartoum, becomes an obsession.

My wife was the Community Liaison Officer, a job that some have described as a sort of cruise director, at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and finding turkeys there fell under her vague job description since it was considered a “morale issue.” Americans take for granted the ability to walk into any grocery store in the country and get what they need for a Thanksgiving dinner in ten minutes, but in many parts of the world, it can be a serious scavenger hunt to get the items you need.One year, when I was posted in Trinidad, I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for Karo syrup for a pecan pie recipe. (I had no idea at the time that other recipes don’t require it) I must have visited every store in Port of Spain before I finally found a bottle and felt as though I’d scored a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their family members have one luxury that most expats don’t – the ability to order products online and have them shipped to a U.S. address. Those who are at posts with an APO address can get things quickly, but everyone else has to wait anywhere from a week to a few weeks or more to get their mail. But no matter how you slice it, you still can’t order a turkey on Amazon.com.

soldiers eating thanksgiving dinnerAt the time we lived there, it was impossible to find turkeys for sale in Macedonia, and, unlike larger posts, we didn’t have a PX or a commissary that sold them, so my wife had to do some detective work and ultimately found a way to get birds from a military base in Kosovo and have them trucked down to Macedonia. It wasn’t as simple as driving over to the local Safeway but we probably appreciated them more.

With a little effort, expats can usually cobble together some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal but the hardest part of being overseas is having to spend the holiday season away from family and loved ones. I arrived at overseas posts for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving on three occasions: Skopje, Macedonia, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Budapest, Hungary, and it’s always a little odd to arrive at a new post without any of your household effects or cookware before a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Even if you’re the most repellant jerk in the world, someone will invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. At some posts, the Ambassador will invite singles, newcomers and other strays to dinner and in others, people just informally make sure that no one is home alone without access to turkey meat unless they want to be.

In a way, it’s kind of a remarkable thing the way FSOs host fellow colleagues they barely know for this really important family holiday. Can you imagine having Thanksgiving dinner with a work colleague you barely know in the U.S.? We had kind souls host us in Port of Spain and Budapest and, in our first year in Skopje, I went to a meal hosted by the Ambassador. On other occasions, we introduced local friends to our favorite American holiday.

We were grateful for the invites we got, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it can be a little depressing to spend Thanksgiving with a collection of people you don’t know well. No matter how good the company is, you can’t help but wish you were with your real family, rather than your Foreign Service one, which can feel very much like what I imagine a foster home experience is like. And I never had to serve in a combat zone, where Thanksgiving dinner means waiting in a buffet line with a tray.

There are lots of advantages to the Foreign Service lifestyle but being away from family members during holidays and important occasions is probably the biggest drawback. Those of us who are fortunate to be with family members and near readily available dead turkeys this year should raise a glass and toast members of the Foreign Service, the military and every other American that’s serving their country and dealing with ad-hoc bird meat and improvised company this year.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service”

[Photo credit: US Army Africa on Flickr]