So I’m with friends hiking in the Himalayas, and we run into a Buddhist monk who is climbing up to a monastery where he will spend the next eight years in silent meditation. As our guide explains this, Rich grabs some of the monk’s stuff, hoists it onto his shoulder, and helps transport it up the steep slope. This simple, impulsive act of kindness results in an invitation to accompany the monk to the top of the monastery’s tower. We wind our way up endless, dizzying flights of wooden stairs to the small room where this man will spend the next eight years – 2920 days! – in quiet contemplation, attended only by a villager bringing meals. We ask the monk about his meditation practice.
“In meditation,” he says, “your attention is like the flame of a candle. It flickers and wavers, but eventually it always comes back to the center.” He gives a slight wave of his hand to illustrate the point. “Sometimes it’s like a fish on a line, it goes way, way out there–“ a more sweeping gesture this time. “But you just reel it back in. Every time.” Afterwards, one of my friends asks to have his picture taken with the monk, and, emboldened, I ask the same. He nods and gestures for Rich and me to come sit by him.
Now, there’s a delicate social etiquette surrounding Buddhist monks, as some of them have taken vows never to touch a woman; even minor violations of this code require weeks of purification rituals, and I don’t want our new friend to be obliged to add that on to his eight-year plan. So as I sit down, I take extraordinary pains to keep space between us – no easy task in the cramped attic room. And then, just as a friend snaps the picture, the monk reaches out and grabs me in a bear hug.
I love that picture; I can still feel the laughter that burst out of all of us at that moment. And it serves as a cherished reminder of how spontaneity can enrich our lives.
I recently read a post by Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, called How Travel Rewards You For Being Impulsive. Her anecdotes and suggestions include “Try a New Food or Drink,” “Accept Invitations,” and “Dance Without Caring What Other People Think.” I liked them all, especially the last. As many of you know, Rich and I once went dancing in a fountain late on a steamy night in Seville, prompting a local curmudgeon to growl, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from!” And that’s my whole point. Travel is a great way to put yourself in fresh surroundings that prompt you to take chances and try new things, like eating fried flies, going to bullfights, and having Buddhist monks surprise the hell out of you.
Of course, you don't want to abandon common sense entirely. At home or abroad, I wouldn’t recommend going to a stranger’s apartment to look at her collection of KGB weapons or his tattoos of Hitler’s greatest moments. But for the most part, we’re seldom risking more than a little boredom, social awkwardness, or that sinking feeling that comes when you realize they’re serious about you eating the brains of the pig.
Nora writes, “On my first-ever overseas trip (to China, when I was 18 years old), at a traditional Peking Duck dinner I was presented with fried scorpions. Being none too thrilled with scorpions while alive much less dead, I didn’t try them, and have spent the last 20 years regretting that moment.” To be honest, I would have passed on the scorpions, too. But the great thing about having regrets like Nora’s is that the next time somebody offers you an adventure, culinary or otherwise, you’re highly motivated to take a chance and say “Yes!” to something completely new. And there's no telling where that will lead you...
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“So what do you think?” a rookie expat asked me this morning. “Should I let my two daughters, aged fourteen and seventeen, go off on their own, taking the bus from Seville to Granada?”
Parents bringing teens to Seville face endless dilemmas like this one. This is a safe city; pockets get picked and purses snatched, but violent crime is rare, and even large groups of drunken youths rarely erupt into anything beyond a scuffle. Here the drinking age is eighteen, and kids as young as fourteen may be served if they’re not too baby-faced. It’s not uncommon for local teens to head out at midnight and party in youth bars and street groups until dawn. To visiting American kids, raised to believe that they won’t have this kind of night on the town until they turn twenty-one, if ever, this is heady stuff. Their parents’ first reaction – “over my dead body” – usually crumbles in the face of persistent wheedling.
If the parents happen to be visitors in our home, it’s at this point that they usually ask our opinion. And Rich and I always tell them the same thing that I told my new friend this morning: this is a judgment call only a parent can make.
Most eventually cave and allow their teenagers to go out, but only if they give their word that they won’t drink any alcohol. The kids always nod solemnly and race out the door to the nearest youth bar, where they down rum and Cokes with newfound friends until it’s time to stagger home, eating handfuls of peppermints along the way. In the morning, the parents always assure us that their kids didn’t have a single drink; they just walked around admiring the local culture. And I always say, “Yes, the cathedral is lovely in the moonlight,” and pretend to believe this is what happened.
The astonishing thing is that the parents actually believe the kids’ story. Do they really think that teenagers want to spend their vacation looking at churches and old paintings? A few do, of course, but usually, as veteran teen tour leaders Cecelia Maloney and Trisha Stapeton found with their first youth group, “Their perusal of the magnificent cathedrals and world's finest museums rivaled Chevy Chase's cursory glance at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon's Vacation. The sudden draft we felt as we stood gazing and marveling at the beauty inside La Chiesa di Santa Croce was not from the crevices in the centuries-old church; it was our students hightailing it out the door to play hacky sack in the piazza.”
Kids need to find some way to interact with the environment that will make them feel it’s their own. My niece toured five European cities with her high school class, and the main story she told upon return was about a face off in which she bested some snippy Spanish girls. It was the point where the trip got real for her.
“Help your kids connect with European children their own age,” recommends travel guru and parent Rick Steves. “By staying in B and Bs or small guesthouses, you'll find it's easier to meet other traveling families.” He also recommends hostels, where the communal kitchen can provide a great place for kids to make friends.
Not everyone finds it congenial to take long journeys with adolescents. “Give some parents a choice between traveling with teenagers or with a pack of hungry badgers, and they'll choose the badgers nine times out of ten,” said a TravelSense article. To avoid stress and conflict, the article suggests providing kids with plenty of activities, space, exercise, sleep, food, and the chance to go off on their own in safe places.
What is safe? That’s something parents have to decide for themselves. But even when teens take risks that terrify you, sneak around behind your back, and act like grumpy badgers, you’re building memories. “You grab the opportunities as they come,” said a single mom who took her teens abroad. “Our lives are made up of what we do in the present, and of the memories we carry into that vast unknown landscape ahead.”
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“Edgy” and “outrageous” aren’t words I usually use to describe religious-themed holiday figurines, but a few days ago, strolling around a street market in Seville, I was gobsmacked by some of the latest offerings.
If you don’t happen to live in a Mediterranean country, you may not know that here, an event as important as the Nativity requires the largest possible entourage, including, in addition to the usual figures, the entire city of Bethlehem, a caravan for the Wise Men, a legion of plumed Roman soldiers, and a desert with pyramids and a pharaoh’s palace as a backdrop for the Flight into Egypt. There are cunningly crafted, battery-powered moving figures, such as a butcher cutting up a pig. That’s right, a pig; apparently I’m the only one around here to find pork at all incongruous in what’s supposed to be a traditional Jewish community.
If you look closely behind the stable or a bush, you may find a caganer, a figure clearly and explicitly defecating. The Italians and Spanish love this character, insisting that he (or she, in today’s more egalitarian times) adds a much-needed touch of earthy realism. Often the caganer bears the face of a celebrity such as Bruce Springsteen, Kate Middleton, Darth Vader, or Santa. As far as I know, none of those individuals actually happened to be present at the birth of the Lord, but again, I’m the only one who seems the slightest bit concerned about such technicalities.
Every year artisans outdo themselves, for instance creating a stable with a fluffy cloud that “rains” actual water down on the scene, or a stream with live goldfish. I thought I was prepared for anything, but this year, two new figurines made my jaw drop and my hand grope for the camera. The first was a figure of Mary shown baring one breast to feed the Child. They certainly never showed us that at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I went to school! A few booths further on, I discovered a donkey portrayed in the act of giving birth. Obviously I get how it ties in with the theme, but – seriously? No one feels this might be taking earthy realism a bit too far?
Holidays are the expression of the collective consciousness of a society. If you are lucky enough to be abroad for a major celebration, you may have the opportunity to view one of your own traditions in a whole new way through others' eyes.
Take Thanksgiving, for instance. Sevillano friends are convinced it’s the most important day of the year in the US, as it holds center stage in so many movies about American life. Several years ago, Rich and I prepared a Thanksgiving feast for Spanish amigos who were thrilled by the exotic ambiance, but – although too polite to say so – didn’t care for the actual food. The only dish they did like? The canned cranberry sauce, which I consider an also-ran, and included only as a nod to tradition. Go figure.
Seville’s biggest celebration is Holy Week, when a million visitors watch men carry ancient statues of the suffering Jesus and weeping Virgin through the streets. The processions run day and night all week, snaking through the city streets for miles, accompanied by bands playing funeral dirges. Masses of locals line the roads, watching and weeping. Not surprisingly, nobody seems too interested in switching over to the American-style Easter Egg hunt as a more fitting way to mark the occasion.
No one writes sentimental carols about being abroad for the holidays, but to me, it has a special charm all its own. You never know what you’re going to encounter, but you can be sure it will be something astonishing. And even if you don’t want to add a donkey giving birth to your own decorations, it’ll give you something to talk about around the next holiday dinner table.
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“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” I said to Rich and two friends some years ago en route to Nantucket. “In fact, let’s just pretend I’m not even having a fortieth birthday this weekend.”
“Fine, great, no problem,” they all said. “No fuss. We get that.”
And I was such a chump that I believed them.
For the next four days we were inseparable, exploring the island by foot, bike, boat, and car, including a dramatic episode getting lost in a cranberry bog. On the last night of the trip, Rich handed me a package. “From all of us.”
Inside was a photo album with pictures of virtually everyone I’d encountered in Nantucket holding up a large sign reading “Happy Birthday Karen.” I mean everyone: the woman at the airport arrivals counter, the carpenters remodeling the house next door, the clerk at the video store (appropriately photographed in the “Horror” section), the lobsters we’d cooked for dinner. There was even a shot of our rental car, lost in the cranberry bog, sporting the sign on its back bumper. It was astonishing. And frankly, if it had been anybody but them, it would have been a little creepy. Make that very creepy.
“When did you take these?” I said. “We were together every minute!” Apparently each time I’d dozed off over a book or taken a shower, they’d dashed out and snapped a picture. I never suspected a thing. Once I got over my shock and paranoia, I realized that photo album was one of the greatest gifts ever, and the four of us have been laughing about it for years.
There is an art to celebrating birthdays on the road. “For my fiftieth,” a friend told me, “I arranged to wake up in a hotel overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.” What a great way to mark a milestone! But often our birthdays aren’t the focus of a trip; they just sneak up in the middle of one. So how do you make the day special?
1. Reach out to friends. Being far from home on a special occasion can make you feel isolated and lonesome. Inspired by the Nantucket album, a few years ago I sent out emails asking friends to post birthday wishes for Rich on Facebook while we were traveling. He woke up that morning to find dozens of pix of pals holding “Happy Birthday Rich” signs, photos of past celebrations, even birthday song videos. A warm way to start the day.
2. Try a local custom. European couples often entwine a pair of padlocks and hook them onto a bridge, throwing the keys into the water to show their love will last. This charming, romantic gesture is viewed as vandalism and strictly prohibited by most city officials. One year I bought a pair of padlocks, marked them with our initials, and then, under the cover of darkness, stood lookout while Rich fastened them to a bridge. Sneaking around and evading the cops added real zing to the evening.
3. Do something you’ve never done before. This is an especially good way to celebrate when you’re traveling solo. There’s nothing like taking your first camel ride, learning the hula, or going skinny dipping at midnight to make the day feel special. How far you go with this is up to you; if you decide to get a tattoo, you might want to choose something that’s not going to require a lot of explaining when you get home.
In our increasingly mobile, global society, home is becoming less about geography and more about connection. The days of everyone we love being concentrated in one spot are long gone for most of us anyway. For me, celebrating on the road is an affirmation that I can feel at home wherever I find myself, making me a true citizen of the world. And that is the best gift of all.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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