Category Archives: Travel

My magical, illegal, debatably unethical infiltration

That verdant landscape and pristine bodies of water between the parks? Really a parking lot.

All day long I was fixated on the map. I was sure there was a way to get from boring Universal Studios to the much more exciting Islands of Adventure. A way, of course, that didn’t actually involve paying for a ticket.

My family wasn’t listening to me. They were happily going from Jaws to Spongebob Squarepants 3D and back. My 10-year-old brother, Andrew, did desperately want to see the recently built Hogwarts Castle, home of the high-tech new Harry Potter ride, but my frugal father (who had snagged our deeply discounted passes off some Disney-scamming black market) would not oblige him. My husband, James, didn’t believe it was possible.

There was a part of me that wanted to put the “adventure” into Islands of Adventure, a part of me that was just as cheap and subversive as my father, and a part of me that felt there was something ironic about the idea of infiltrating a microcosm of our manufactured society. It felt like something David Foster Wallace would write about.

It was almost evening. I felt guilty about ditching the family on a family vacation, but sometimes people have to go and make their own path. Over some deep-fried amusement park fare, I again studied the map. In the space between the two parks there was a painterly terrain of green vegetation and a large blue lake. I assumed that the periphery of the park was guarded with a tall fence, perhaps barbed wire and surveillance cameras. I would have to crawl through acres of wilderness and take cover under what looked like low-lying trees if a helicopter were to pick up the trail, then climb an imposing fence.

I begged James to walk over to a far back corner with me just to scope things out. He reluctantly agreed.

We stood for a minute watching families take pictures in front of a large façade mural of the New York Public Library. There was a chain-link gate surrounding a ride to our left. James tried the little steel latch. It opened.

We walked through, thrilled at this first bit of luck. Suddenly, we were in what was apparently an employee parking lot — not, as the map had led to me believe,  undeveloped Floridian wilderness a la Lord of the Rings. There were small nondescript buildings, a few parked cars, and regular people walking about. “Act casual,” I hissed. “If anyone asks, we work at Dip ‘n’ Dots.”

No alibi was necessary. No one looked twice, presuming we were off-duty park workers. We passed a corner security office, guards standing out front. We turned left, then right. We didn’t know where we were headed, seemingly guided by an invisible Cheshire cat.

We crossed the street into another parking lot, bizarrely adorned at one end with a large funhouse mirror. A guard walked directly in front of us, and we followed him nervously. He was heading into the mirror! At the last minute, he stepped through a small, hidden hole beside it, through a gate hidden by greenery.

We stepped through after him and looked up to see the impressive entrance of Hogsmeade, the whimsical village leading to the great Hogwarts Castle. Happy families crowded into quaint-looking shops to buy overpriced wands; others lined up to buy pumpkin beer from fake wooden street carts. Magical.

“I can’t believe it!” We exclaimed, while still looking over our shoulders. Perhaps they were observing us on a security system and would pounce at any moment! I considered buying an overpriced Grinch sweatshirt as a disguise, but settled for putting on a hat. We threw our things in a locker and began hitting the rides with exuberant, triumphant glee.

But my family was still over at Universal Studios, wondering where we had went. I texted my older brother and urged him to join us. He bravely said he was on his way.

Meanwhile, James and I were having a blast. We rode in a log down a waterfall and snagged an awesome drop picture. We went on the giant green Incredible Hulk Coaster, screaming as we went upside down, feeling like teenagers. We got soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and air-dried as we ran through Toon Lagoon.

Then my brother called – he had made it to Hogsmeade! We met up at the Hogwarts Express and I began eagerly telling him about all the awesome rides we should go on. “I’m going back to get Andrew,” he said, and to my disappointment, immediately left. I did very much want Andrew to ride the famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which I was saving for last. I hoped he would make it before the park closed for the night. But I wasn’t about to test my luck.

As we continued our coaster spree, I kept eagerly checking my phone. Finally, I got a call. My brothers had been apprehended. Apparently having a child with you is a red flag; grown adults, presumably, wouldn’t engage in such infantile, unethical behavior. My poor little brother spent the rest of the night locked in a security office, getting grilled and sobbing. My brothers were banned from the park for a year.

What could I do? I was in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and it was an hour ‘til closing. I couldn’t leave without hitting the creme de la crème, the crown jewel, the grand finale. And it exceeded all my expectations.

By the time I emerged from Hogwarts Castle, it was night. The park was lit up and ethereal. I lingered at the colorful, fantastical Dr. Suess Landing, marveling at the dreamlike scenery. I didn’t ever want to leave.

But all great journeys must come to an end, and so I allowed myself to join the satisfied hordes heading for the exit. But I’ll never forget the sensation of stepping into a wonderland; a wonderland made, it seemed, just for me.

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One-way ticket to Rome

Yep, that’s right. Today I bought a one-way ticket to Rome. I’ve been thinking about going for some time, but something has kept me back; and it still haunts and threatens me.

No, I’m not talking about money. This is something intangible. I’m referring to my conditioning.

Those who know me well have heard me bring up this topic time and time again. They are either sick of it or are too conditioned themselves to acknowledge it. Most people respond with any critical comment of America with, “This is the greatest country in the world.”

I am by no means a black-and-white thinker. I understand that every situation, person and place has its good and bad. I am grateful to be an American and to enjoy the rights that I do; I love my job and my life. But none of that negates my point: Americans, in general, work too much.

And I’m not just BSing. Numerous objective studies consistently place the States far down the list of the best countries to work in. Here are the top 10, as reported by the Huffington Post: Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, France.

This was based on work-life balance (how much paid time off is afforded, how many hours worked a week, how much paid leave for parents, etc.)

It is a well-known fact that most countries in Europe mandate a 5-6 week PAID vacation. Of course, Americans get about 2 weeks if they are lucky. 21 days is considered phenomenal. The problem is that most workplaces discourage people from taking off more than a week at once, even if it is unpaid. Therefore, most people are not able to take extended vacations.

Everything is relative. Some people have it far worse and I know I am lucky. But to many, travel is not considered a self-indulgent luxury, but one of life’s greatest and most fulfilling, educational experiences. In fact, one of elderly people’s frequent greatest regrets is that they did not travel more when they were younger (another is wishing they had worked less).

Trips — and not of the weekend resort/Disneyland variety, although those are nice too — are often the highlights and hallmarks of a lifetime. Who wants to do the same thing, in the same place, every day for years upon years? Who doesn’t yearn to admire our planet’s great natural and manmade wonders, to immerse completely in the utter foreignness of other lands, to interface with our brothers and sisters across the seas?

This article, by the Atlantic, goes more in-depth on the subject. It details the top 23 countries to work, with the States dead last. I also encourage you to read the top comments, comments like this:

“Americans work longer days and get less vacation then our European counterparts. Did you know that more German made cars are sold than American made cars? Yet German auto workers make twice what American auto workers make and , get better benefits and more vacation? I’m sure thats all just stacked against the good ol USA.  Wake up, look around. Instead of believing the old BS learn about the reality you are living in.”

and

“I work in the Netherlands. I get 8 weeks paid holiday, a very reasonably priced health insurance plan and I work for a company that has flex hours. We have public transportation that is clean, efficient and plentiful. The Netherlands is an extremely integrated society. There are people from all walks of life living in Holland. And oddly enough, they have almost none of the social problems that the US has.

Are you kidding me? It’s a fantastic life and one I thoroughly love. I’m privileged to be able to work there and live there. And yes, all of these countries are in Europe. That should tell you something. ”

Just to give you some perspective. CNN also featured an article entitled “Why is America the no-vacation nation?” I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this article. It discusses the fact that not only do Americans get barely any vacation opportunities, but they are CONDITIONED to think that they SHOULD NOT BE taking the vacation — my original premise. They (I) feel guilty; I should instead be working diligently, impressing my superiors, climbing the ladder, stacking the cash and saving for the future. Taking a vacation is impractical, self-indulgent, immature and reckless. These are the thoughts nagging me (while the other me is saying go enjoy life and have adventures while you still can).

I doubt that Europeans feel guilty while they are out enjoying life and not chained to their desks. And I’m rather perturbed by the commentary I get in response to these statements — one, people are under the impression that their current economic crisis is a direct result of working less hours. How does this make sense when the U.S. is the one that set off the global recession; when you observe that Europe prospered for years and that people who work hard and long in sweatshops, for example, have little to no effect on their country’s GDP, let alone their own personal well-being. Any cursory survey of world history will prove the correlation of more hours worked to national financial health to be a fallacy. The real culprits are corruption and mismanagement in the upper echelons.

The other response I often get is something along the lines of, “everyone in the world wants to come here; at least you can say what you want without getting shot.” There is truth to this. There are many opportunities in this land of plenty and people, for the most part, are allowed to voice their opinion. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve or learn anything from others.

Plus, taking vacations is supposed to improve health, relieve stress, and improve cognition and creativity — all things which contribute to a higher quality of productive output.

The Tourism Effect

Las Minas waterfall in El Yunque

The population is now about 7 billion, up from 3 billion just five decades ago. And it continues to climb, expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. The world is chock-full of resources, but they may be starting to dwindle under the strain. Some experts foresee shortages of food and water; others wonder where we will get our energy, acknowledging that the “easy oil era” has come to a close. And of course, our massive CO2 output coupled with rapid development, pollution and deforestation is devastating our ecology at a truly alarming rate.

But I want to explore a much more benign – if still unpleasant – side effect of having so many people on the planet: the impact of tourism.

I just returned from Puerto Rico, a lovely trip. While I was hiking in El Yunque, however, I felt like I was in the Disneyland version of a rainforest. The main road was full of cars and exhaust-spewing tour buses; the lookout points and waterfalls swarmed with sightseers. I mean there were dozens upon dozens. I realize that I, too, was a tourist. The irony is that everyone wishes that they could be the only one there.

I couldn’t help but think of how things used to be, back when the Taino natives lived on the island. I imagined them living in harmony with this beautiful environment, bathing in the streams and waterfalls. Columbus described them thus: “They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances.”

On a side note, I highly recommend A Peoples’ History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. In chapter one, he explores how Columbus and co. utterly destroyed these innocent peoples and their culture. You can read it here.

After exploring the main island, we headed to Vieques, which boasts “the world’s brightest bay” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Mosquito Bay is a bioluminescent bay – the water literally glows when it is disturbed due to the presence of tiny dinoflagellates. We went and it was magical. But again, the experience also caused me to reflect and left me rather saddened.

Because the bay isn’t actually the world’s brightest. The title used to belong to a bay in Jamaica, but they lost the honor because they constructed a giant arena on the shore; the glare from the stadium and the boat traffic was so bright and disruptive that you can no longer see the natural glow in its full glory. The same thing happened to the bio bays around Fajardo, a city on the main island of Puerto Rico. The lights from the city drown out the waters’ sparkle. There are several places around the world that boast this same miracle, but they are being lost or have been lost to urban development and tourist disruption. Many organisms were killed by the run-off from DEET-containing bug spray.

And now even Mosquito Bay is threatened. Our guide first arrived there when he was seven and grew up around the waters. He said he used to not be able to see his hand in front of his face. The utter darkness allowed the bay to shine. Now, due to growing popularity with tourists, the town around the bay, Esperanza, is built up and bright (although you can still see so many stars there than you can in most developed areas, a sight just as breathtaking to me as the stars in the water. Most places are so full of night pollution that they have already extinguished a natural wonder our ancestors took for granted). Now you have to kayak into a far corner of the bay to get the full effect.

As per usual, the issue is complicated. I am one of the tourists I inadvertently malign. And tourism can be a boon for impoverished residents. Nevertheless it is sad to see formerly pristine environments and natural wonders being overrun and damaged – something that happens all over the world and will get worse as there are more and more of us on a finite sphere.

In fact, there have been recent discussions of how increased tourism in Antarctica – one of the very few remaining untouched places – will harm this fragile ecosystem. Pollution, oil spills, and introduction of nonnative flora and fauna are a few of the concerns. So little remains of truly wild, uninhabited wildernesses, and when people invade (as I myself would like to), they often change it forever.

I wrote this poem on the plane ride home to express my melancholy:

Bioluminescence

He came when he was seven

Brought by Uncle Abe

Who now employs him as a guide

For cash-laden tourists.

His friend Bebo, short and dark, comes along

Squirting out some kind of juice

Mosquitoes don’t like.

Back then, when he was seven, there were no tourists

The bay was black and it was his.

Stars sparkled above and below; tiny dinoflagellates

Made the water glow.

Once upon a time the natives of Vieques

Thought those waters evil, as did the Spanish

When they came to look for treasures

Then shipped it all away.

Now there are new lights around the rim

Lights of modern progress, lights of wealth

Proud restaurateurs and hotel proprietors

Lights from pretty houses on the hills.

This is the brightest bay in all the world

Jamaica lost that honor, due to a newly built arena

The boat traffic and fluorescent glare

Made it disappear.

A shark darts beneath my kayak.

Jeffrey is telling the group how he used to swim here as a child.

Now no one is allowed. A ten grand fine.

I dip my feet and hands in and think about what once was.

I’m saddened as they pull our kayaks in.

Sail beyond the sunset

One of my absolute most favorite, cherished poems is  “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is the ultimate ode to living life to the fullest: “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees …”

It is about Homer’s ancient Greek king Odysseus, but anyone with a case of restless wanderlust and an innate need for adventure can understand this mantra: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

The sentiment is echoed in this popular quote by Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that 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.” 

All of us have to find a way to make our dreams come true. Our main enemies are time and resources. This is my main concern, always in the back of my mind, every day. How can I live life to the absolute fullest while still fulfilling my responsibilities and being a practical, level-headed person? After all, I can’t just catch the next plane to Paris, however enticing that idea may be. I guess I could go Into the Wild.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know if I should act on instinct or be more logical; but if I am more logical, I am holding myself back unnecessarily? Am I conforming too much to society and constructing my own mental barriers? Should I drop everything and dedicate every ounce of energy to my dream, or should I simply send my intention out into the universe, like in The Secret?

When I was little I loved books like The Chronicles of Narnia, and I would often embark on my own make-believe adventures. Now I long to explore the world and connect with nature in uncharted territories (are there even any left?). Hopefully I can find a way to sail my own ship “beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die …”

Ulysses

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,– cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all,–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
>From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,–
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me,–
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,– you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Live without Dead Time

The latest Adbusters print magazine urges people to live without dead time.

For many people, this means do not get trapped in a sedentary, passive lifestyle where you are literally programmed by the media and advertisements (or, poisoned with infotoxins; read more here and here).

Not too long ago, people were much more active. They grew things, built things and created things with their hands. They walked almost everywhere. I am not anti-progress, but I do decry the car-work-couch cycle that many Americans fall into.

Unfortunately, my job requires long periods of sitting, which is linked to higher rates of cancer. I recently started practicing yoga, which felt amazing, dissolving all the accumulated tension and knots from hours and hours of sitting at a desk. Giving up TV also helps, opening your mind to the world around you.

The last time I watched TV, I was in a condominium gym, a small windowless room lit up by fluorescent lights. As I walked on the treadmill, a commercial came on urging people to stop drinking cranberry juice and pop a pill instead. It was saying, forget what your mom told you. Now  you can get the same bladder protection in a more modern and convenient way. Needless to say, I found it repugnant (as I do most commercials). That night, in my dreams, a phrase came to me: “I live in an artificial ad world.”

It is difficult to have true authentic adventures, to avoid advertisements and to truly live in our modern, industrialized landscape. That is why I want to travel and to eventually live … somewhere else.